It has not been the happiest of 18 months for Diego Forlán. When he arrived at Cerezo Osaka just ahead of Japan’s 2014 J.League season, the Uruguayan star was supposed to be the final piece of the club’s jigsaw, one that, when put together, would finally give the team its elusive league title. Now, with his club in the second division, Forlán’s deal is about to some to an end. So will his time in Japan.
The Flaming Pinks had been desperate to be crowned Japan’s best team for years, with events of a decade ago still provoking nightmares in one half of Japan’s second city. In 2005, at kick off on the last day of the season, Cerezo topped a very tight table, with just two points separating the league’s top five teams. The title was still within reach in the round’s final minute, when FC Tokyo, a mid-table side with little to play for, got a goal from nowhere. With every team behind it getting points, Cerezo plunged from first to fifth, with inner-city rivals Gamba Osaka stepping in take the title. A neutral going out in Osaka that night had to pick their bar and restaurant very carefully.
The signing of Forlán to a reported annual salary of $6 million not only signaled Cerezo’s intent to lift that sought after trophy but rekindled the big yen signings of the J.League’s yore. When the league kicked off back in 1993, some of the biggest names in world soccer were around – Zico, Dunga, Gary Lineker and Dragan Stojković — albeit with varying effectiveness. That era has gone. Now, it is Chinese Super League teams that makes headlines around the world with its transfer activity, with Japan’s former spenders watching as Guangzhou Evergrande, led by Italy’s former World Cup-winning head coach Marcello Lippi, won the Asian Champions League in 2013.
Forlán hinted at something different. People looked at a résumé that featured Manchester United and Inter Milan as well as a Golden Ball-winning performance at the 2010 World Cup and anticipated a man who would win games on his own. But by the time he arrived in Japan, Forlán was already 34 years old. Fans may have also forgotten that, in South Africa, he had a certain Luis Suárez to help.
The team’s incumbent star, a young attacker named Yoichiro Kakitani, was either unwilling or unable to play a similar role. The new golden boy of Japanese soccer — now in Switzerland with FC Basel — had scored 21 goals in 34 games the previous season, but he struggled to click with the veteran import. The chemistry between the two was lacking, as was the understanding. More than once, a pass would come but the run would not. At other times, Forlán was the lone man in attack, isolated and frustrated under the close attention of defenders keen to stop the star of the previous World Cup.
Often, they succeeded. In 36 appearances in all competitions in his first season, Forlán managed just nine goals – not terrible, but not the spectacular performance that many had predicted. The service he received certainly could have been better, but Forlán was still falling well short of expectations.
The team was following suit. The team that finished fourth in 2013 started 2014 winning three of its first four, but that was as good as it got. The next 11 games came and win without a win. Coach Ranko Popović was fired in June as the team’s form didn’t improve, and his successor, Italian Marco Pezzaiuoli, was expected to sort out both the club and its big star. When a left in September, the club was still on its winless run, forcing it to hand its youth coach the senior team job.
Less than a year after finishing near the top of the standings, Cerezo was in a fight to stay in the first division, though according to Forlán, not everybody in the locker room truly understood what it all meant.
“(Japanese players) don’t understand the significance of relegation because fans don’t pressure them,” Forlán said in December. “There’s no pressure for them to win or lose…”
In the last few games of the season, the blond attacker was not in the team and, as he sat on the sidelines watching Cerezo slide out of the top tier with a 4-1 home defeat to Kashima Antlers on Nov. 29, his frustration was understandable. Fans were angry, too. A postgame address by chairman Masao Okano was jeered by fans, who’d also unveiled a banner behind mocking the club’s official 2014 season slogan (every team in Japan has one). ‘Our strongest attack in history,” the club touted. “Only financially,” answered the banner, adding “and our reinforcement efforts were worthless in the end. Can a club incapable of using its 20 years experience truly blossom?”
Harsh words, but they summed up the general disappointment at a season that had carried so much promised. Forlán was just one of many aspects that didn’t work out as hoped. None at the club can look back at the season with much satisfaction, except perhaps goalkeeper Kim Jin-hyeon.
The malaise has continued into the 2015 season. Unlike rival Gamba, which was relegated at the end of 2012, stormed to promotion in 2013 and won the J.League title in 2014, Cerezo is not pulling up any trees in Japan’s second tier, sitting safely in mid-table. Promotion is still a possibility through the playoffs. If form takes a dramatic turn, even the automatic promotion stops are not our of the question.
For Forlan, though, the J.League experience is almost over. He’s put up better numbers in his second season, leading the division in scoring through 18 rounds. He has also been more vocal on the field, recognizing that if the team needs some leadership, he has to be the one to provide it. But a second division club can’t afford to pay the biggest name in Japanese soccer. With his contract set to expire next month, Forlán’s already announced he will return to Uruguay with hopes of signing with his boyhood club, Peñarol.
In the end, Forlán did OK, particularly considering where he’s at in his career. But leaving a club that’s still without a title, now fighting in the second division, Forlán’s Japanese adventure may go down as a disappointment. He just wasn’t the kind of hero fans and media had hoped for.