Diego Forlan ignored the pain for as long as he could, carrying Uruguay on his shoulders and giving the little nation hope of a most improbable World Cup final berth.
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That made the disappointment all the more bitter.
The score was 1-1 in the second half and the South American nation was making it a tight game against the Netherlands. Forlan was leading by example as the stand-in captain, equalizing the match with a 25-yard blast, spreading passes from deep and threatening in the box.
Then, the Dutch struck twice and Forlan’s thigh became so unbearable he couldn’t continue. Despite a fantastic tournament for himself and his country, Forlan was crushed.
"We were so close to the final," said the 31-year-old striker, who scored four goals in South Africa. "It’s very disappointing. We had chances and we didn’t take them."
Forlan said he felt pain in his thigh before the 3-2 semifinal loss on Tuesday, but was determined to play – and the immediate results were astounding.
After Giovanni van Bronckhorst scored a stunning first-half goal for the Netherlands, Forlan brought his country of 3.5 million people back into the match with a swerving shot from distance that Dutch goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg couldn’t keep out.
With Uruguay missing a number of regular starters because of injury or suspension, Forlan wore the captain’s armband in place of Diego Lugano and seemed determined to compensate for the absence of his normal forward partner Luis Suarez and part of the first-team midfield.
There he was almost as a right back, sending a pinpoint through pass halfway across the pitch to an onrushing Uruguayan winger. He tested Stekelenburg again with a swerving, 30-yard free kick that brought out a good save. And he was fighting for every loose ball.
Then, Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben scored for the Dutch in quick succession. The Uruguayans were deflated, and Forlan’s thigh was dead.
"When we started the game, I had a bit of pain. In the later minutes it was more painful," he said, stoically. Still he ran off the pitch at full speed when Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez replaced him in the 85th minute with Sebastian Fernandez.
Those seconds might have counted as the team closed the gap to 3-2 with a late goal, setting up a frantic finish.
"He was hurting," Tabarez said. "It wasn’t anything grave, but obviously you could see, especially at the end, that he wasn’t 100 percent."
Forlan said he hoped to play in Uruguay’s third-place consolation match in Port Elizabeth on Saturday.
The team will face either Spain or Germany, who meet in the other semifinal match Wednesday, and it might be the last chance for Forlan to display his talents on the world’s biggest stage. He will be 35, and possibly too old, when the 2014 World Cup takes place in Brazil.
After averaging more than 20 goals a season at club level in Spain over the last six years, and twice winning the Golden Boot as Europe’s top scorer, this tournament cemented the blond-haired striker’s reputation as one of the world’s top marksmen.
Forlan acknowledged the team’s great improvement in recent years, and its fine showing at the World Cup.
But a bitter sense of frustration pervaded.
"It’s a shame because we lost a unique opportunity," Forlan said. "We had a chance to score a goal in the second half. The game was going for us. But we didn’t score, and they scored."