The tale of Fornaroli and Suárez: Two kids from Salto, Uruguay

When Bruno Fornaroli was 12, he made the 500-kilometer bus ride from his home in Salto to Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo, to join Nacional — one of the biggest, most prestigious soccer clubs in the country.

His parents didn’t want him to go, they said he was too young, but he was insistent; playing for Nacional, he told his father, was his dream. Soon after that ride to the capital began, Fornaroli met someone who would go on to become a long-time friend, someone also heading to Nacional after returning to Salto to see their own family, and who had somehow picked Fornaroli out as a fellow footballer and sparked up a conversation. That person was Luis Suárez, who would go on to become one of the world’s finest strikers and, as of last month, the latest player to join Major League Soccer behemoths Inter Miami CF.

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Salto is somewhat of a soccer anomaly. A city of just 100,000 people that sits on Uruguay’s Argentinian border, it’s the hometown of Suárez, Fornaroli and Uruguay legend Edinson Cavani, among others — it’s veritable goalmine. It was there that Fornaroli’s footballing journey began, marked with a moment of remarkable serendipity in meeting Suarez; auguring an odyssey that has become almost defined by its ability to constantly surprise, and take the Uruguayan to unexpected places far away from home.

Some 24 years after that bus ride, Fornaroli finds himself in Doha, Qatar, not preparing to represent Uruguay or eyeing June’s Copa América but, instead, at the AFC Asian Cup. Whereas in his youth he had idolised the likes of Rubén Sosa and Enzo Francescoli, emulating the luminaries of the Uruguay national team, the 36-year-old now wears green-and-gold: a member of Australia’s 26-player squad that will compete to be crowned kings of Asia in coming weeks.

“He would be surprised!” Fornaroli, reflecting on his younger self, told ESPN. “He would be surprised but at the same time, this is football. It’s crazy. This is why it’s so exciting. It changes a lot, you never know. You never know in 90 minutes, imagine in one career.

“That little kid would be surprised but I know that I’ve made the right decisions in my career.

“I’m proud. It’s an honour to play Australia. It’s nothing like ‘Oh, he couldn’t play for Uruguay.’ No, no, no. I’m so happy to be here, I have Aussie kids and my son was born in Melbourne. There are plenty of reasons.”

Even accounting for the craziness that is football, however, it’s somewhat remarkable how one can bookend, even tangentially, the careers of Fornaroli and Suárez. For a while, the former was preferred ahead of Suárez in Nacional’s youth teams, partnering Martin Cauteruccio up front while the latter came off the bench. But eventually Suárez’s talent, despite a somewhat wild reputation, saw him leapfrog his peers in the academy and earn a call-up to the Nacional first team, before moving to Dutch club Groningen the following year.

“Me and Luis, we spent a lot of time together,” Fornaroli said. “Five years sharing the same change room and playing together, we were both No. 9s and have great memories together.

“We are close friends and I’m so happy to see him and what he’s done for football. Not just for Uruguay or for each club that he plays for, I think what he’s shown for the new generation. I think he’s a top player and I know him as a person and he’s even better.”

Fornaroli would debut for Nacional’s first team under Daniel Carreño the same year Suárez departed, and subsequently earn a move to Italian side Sampdoria after two strong seasons. That’s where the similarities between the two friends, at least temporarily, would end as Fornaroli failed to kick on in Europe as his compatriot did. Instead, after stints across Italy, Argentina, Spain, a Nacional return, Greece, and Brazil, Fornaroli eventually found himself in Australia, playing in the A-League Men with Melbourne City in 2015, a competition in which he started scoring and simply never stopped. He is now the third highest goal-scorer in the competition’s 19-year history.

Australia has become home to Fornaroli. The country is all his children have ever known, and he obtained citizenship in 2022. After his celebrated stint with City — 51 goals in 71 games across all competitions — ended with him being frozen out by then-coach Warren Joyce, Fornaroli didn’t depart the country but instead signed for a stint with Perth Glory, before then joining City’s bitter rivals Melbourne Victory — recruited at both of those latter stops by his current coach Tony Popovic.

A change in FIFA eligibility rules in 2020 meant the former Uruguay under-17 representative was suddenly available to an international switch of allegiance and, amid an availability crisis during the COVID-19 pandemic, Fornaroli was called up by Australia for two appearances during qualifying for the 2022 World Cup. It was a crowning moment for a player that has become largely beloved Down Under, even amongst ostensible league rivals. His parents flew in from Uruguay to watch the game, the first time he had seen them in three years after the pandemic slammed Australia’s borders shut. But that was supposed to be it, a “break glass in case of emergency” type of call-up with no future national team appearances in sight. There were no surprises when others came back into the Socceroos setup ahead of Fornaroli in the months that followed.

But that’s what makes Fornaroli inclusion in Australia’s Asian Cup squad so remarkable. Because, simply, he’s not supposed to be there. At 36, he doesn’t fit with coach Graham Arnold’s intentions to start to usher in a new generation as the road to the 2026 World Cup begins, and he doesn’t possess the history in the squad to provide any kind of incumbency bonus. As an A-League Men player, he carries a disincentive of being out-of-season come the August, September, and October international windows. Even Fornaroli admits that he didn’t consider the possibility of a national return until local journalist Anna Harrington asked him about it following a four-goal haul against the Newcastle Jets in late October.

Yet with 13 goals in just 10 games to start the 2023-24 season, Fornaroli also had to be included. No Socceroos-eligible striker has been playing as well or as regularly as the veteran in the lead up to the Asian Cup. His ability to hold the play up, manoeuvre the ball in tight spaces, and lethal instincts help Fornaroli bring something different to the team’s other strikers. He’s taken the adage about of “If you’re good enough, you’re old enough” and flipped it in its head. Yes, he’s 36, but what kind of message would Arnold have been sending his squad about minutes and form if Fornaroli wasn’t picked?

“I realised in the last couple of years, when you start to realise that it could be coming to the end of your career … I don’t want the last couple of years in my career not playing or not performing well,” Fornaroli said. “I want to finish my career enjoying my football and doing my best.

“Nacional was the biggest team in Uruguay and when you play for a big team like Nacional … they put in your mind that it doesn’t matter who, it doesn’t matter if you play at home or away. You have to win.”

That Nacional mindset helping to spur a national team return against the odds is fitting because it’s here that we find the other bookend between Fornaroli and Suárez — two kids from Salto, refusing to go quietly into the night and instead experiencing career renaissances.

Because Suárez’s international career was also supposed to be over, too. After Uruguay’s exit from the 2022 World Cup and the arrival of new head coach Marcelo Bielsa, La Celeste were going through their own period of rejuvenation. But Suárez never stopped scoring; 26 goals in 53 games with Brazilian side Grêmio clearly caught the attention of Inter Miami and earned a national team re-call from Bielsa during the November window.

“The period now, when qualifiers for the World Cup started there was a time Bielsa didn’t call him for a couple of games,” said Fornaroli. “And then he keeps scoring, keeps scoring, keeps scoring and then it gets to a point where Bielsa cannot look to the other side.

“That showed me as well, still believe. Why not? He’s my age, still scoring goals, still performing.

“That sends a message for everyone, for every single player.”

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