"When he plays, usually we win. When he plays, usually he scores or makes an assist. When he plays, the other team is more aware of him. That’s good for us. When he plays, the TV ratings are high, the attendance in the stadium is better. When he plays, our players are more motivated. What else can you ask from a marquee player?" Mumbai City FC Head Coach Alexandre Guimares had said in one of his press conferences this season when asked about their marquee player, Diego Forlan's performance.
Marquee players have been a big point of debate ever since the advent of the Indian Super League as their role has been little more than just a crowd-puller. Mostly these stars from yesteryear have failed to set the pitch on fire. Mumbai City FC are perhaps the greatest witness to this with former marquee player Nicolas Anelka failing to make great deal of impact in his two seasons at the club.
The story has hardly been different elsewhere as the likes of Roberto Carlos, Robert Pires, Helder Postiga, Lucio and a few more, hardly made any ripples with their performances on the pitch.
The third edition of the competition has seen the trend continue with perhaps the exception of Florent Malouda who has been excellent for Delhi Dynamos. However, after Saturday's landmark result at the Mumbai Football Arena, where the Mumbai City FC condemned Kerala Blasters to a 5-0 defeat, it would be only apt if we add another name to the list of ISL's successful marquee player stories.
"Diego Forlan is a free spirit and he likes to fly," Mumbai coach Gumares had said before the game. And fly he did!
From making a clever run in between defenders before slotting home a fine finish, to scoring an inch-perfect free-kick that any goalkeeper in the world would dread, Forlan set up an exhibition of finishing. If his first two goals of the night showed his predatory instincts, the goal that clinched his hattrick was testimony to his composure in front of goal.
As he received the ball from Cafu that set him clear on goal, the Uruguayan just calmly passed into the net as the Kerala goalkeeper made himself as big as he could to narrow down his angle. The finish was so cool, it was as if Forlan never saw the goalkeeper in front of him.
The style, the swagger was there for all to see, but amidst all his flamboyance was an aspect of his game that might have been lost. A remarkable work rate and a great tactical awareness was as crucial an aspect of his performance on Saturday as were his goals.
Having started primarily on the left side of a front three, Forlan floated all across the park when Mumbai had the possession, but as soon as the lost it, he swiftly regained his position and dropped deep to help in defence. It was a part of Mumbai's ploy to make the system work, and Forlan his part very well.
"He (Forlan) is not someone who would say that's not the position I play, if I put him somewhere else. Despite playing as a striker for most of his career, he's ready to play behind the striker, on the right, on the left and anywhere the team needs him," Guimares had said highlighting Forlan's willingness to be team player.
From the subdued Anelka to the energetic Forlan, Mumbai now have a leader who's willing to put in a shift, willing to make his team-mates do the right things and ready to sacrifice a bit for his team.
Despite Mumbai enjoying a 2-0 lead in the first half, the Uruguayan didn't shy away from making his frustration felt when Sehnaj Singh wasted a couple of crossing opportunities, firstly by shooting way over the crossbar and secondly by ignoring easier options and opting for an ambitious cross.
He was right in his face, making him aware that he needed to better.
"Apart from the fact that Forlan's a world class striker, he's very involved. You might not see a lot of foreign super stars come here and be so involved on the field and off the field. He keeps talking to the players. He makes sure he's there in the training, every gym session and he's so dedicated. That's something which is very commendable and something to learn from," Sunil Chhetri told Firstpost after the game.
"On the pitch, the touch never goes. He has that touch, his link-up play is very good, he's very clever and frankly it's easy to play with him," Chhetri added.
Forlan is now the league's top scorer and a lot of credit for Forlan's success goes to coach Guimares who's often handed him a free role behind the striker where he thought the forward feels more 'liberated' and 'involved in the game' and got the best out of him. The coach hailed Forlan's character after his hattrick while suggesting his winning mentality was contagious.
"He (Forlan) has proven to be a good marquee player. He's got better every game and contributed to the development of football here. Also I feel he's that kind of character that likes to win and he is here to win. Such character is contagious and its good for our team," Guimares told reporters after the game.
We will have to wait and see if Forlan is able to guide Mumbai to their first ever ISL crown, but his hattrick on Saturday has left them on the cusp of their first semifinal appearance. His desire to win has been palpable all throughout his career, with Uruguay's run to the semifinals of the 2010 Fifa World Cup being a prime example of it.
However whatever the outcome of the season be, Forlan has been one of ISL's rare marquee success stories in the three years. And those who have watched him play in the ISL this season would vouch for the fact that although his class has shone, he's been doing it the hard way.