Fernando Torres and the cyclical journey of a cult hero

Fernando Torres and the cyclical journey of a cult hero

DATELINE: 20 MARCH 1984. Fernando Torres, the youngest of three siblings, was born in the municipality of Fuenlabrada, some 22 kilometres from the Spanish capital. Joining his local side, Parque 84, at the age of five, a young Torres followed in the footsteps of his elder brother Israel in learning the craft of goalkeeping.

Taken to training every day by his mother, Torres was immersed in football throughout his childhood. His grandfather would instil a love of Atlético Madrid, taking Fernando to the Vincente Calderón, a place that would become something of a temple – a safe haven to Torres over the course of an ultimately cyclical career, laden with glorious highs and dispiriting lows.

A seven-year-old Torres would ditch the goalkeeping gloves to play as a striker for another neighbourhood club, Mario’s Holland – a positional change that would eventually see a meteoric rise to the very top of the European game. He credits his love for the sport to a Japanese cartoon, Captain Tsubasa: “When I was a kid, we couldn’t find the signal really well on TV, but everyone in school was talking about this cartoon about football from Japan. I started playing football because of this.”

Torres recalls the story of two young players that began playing for their youth team, before progressing to the national side and winning the World Cup, a feat Torres would go on to achieve 19 years later. His first experience of 11-a-side football came as a 10-year-old playing for Rayo 13, for whom he would plunder a meaty 55 goals in a single season before earning a trial at Atlético Madrid aged 11.

After progressing through the Atleti youth system, Torres put pen to paper on his first professional contract at the age of 15, eventually making his first team debut versus CD Leganés in May 2001. Atlético were a far cry from the European powerhouse of today, lumbering in the Segunda División until the 2001-02 season in which the club achieved promotion to the top tier of Spanish football. Torres had scored just six goals, playing a backstage part in the promotion campaign.

The following season would see the Madridistas cement their La Liga status with an 11th place finish, with Torres scoring 13 goals and drawing the attention of Chelsea in the form of a £28 million bid in the summer of 2003. The bid was duly rejected, and his stock would continue to rise after making his senior international debut in September 2003. A tally of 19 goals in 2003-04 placed Torres third in the La Liga scoring charts, and by the age of 19 Torres would earn the honour of captaining his boyhood club. This promising prodigy had emphatically announced himself on the scene, seemingly destined for stardom.

Chelsea came calling again in 2006, only to be turned away once more, but by this stage there was a growing sense that Atlético could not hold on to Torres for much longer. Following 82 goals in 214 league appearances for his boyhood club, Torres finally left Atlético as something of a cult hero. In July 2007, he penned a six-year deal at Rafael Benítez’s Liverpool. It was the end of a beautiful tale and the start of an iconic new chapter for Torres, about to enter the finest years of his illustrious career.

In a deal worth £20 million – taking account of Luis García’s transfer in the opposite direction – Torres became Liverpool’s all-time record signing. Not remotely phased by such pressure, he immediately lived up to the billing, taking the Premier League by storm. With 24 goals in his debut Premier League season, the Spaniard – known affectionately as El Niño – became the first Liverpool player since Robbie Fowler in 1995-96 to hit 20 league goals in a single campaign. Liverpool would go on to finish 4th that season and qualify for the Champions League.

The Kop had a new hero to worship, ‘Fernando Torres, Liverpool’s Number 9′. The song became an Anfield favourite as Torres endeared himself to the Liverpool fans, earning the kind of love and admiration he had experienced in his formative years at the Calderón.

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Following an outstanding debut season in English football, Torres compounded his club success with a Man of the Match performance in the European Championship final in 2008, scoring the winning goal as Spain conquered Germany in what would be the first of a remarkable treble of international honours. The Spaniard’s performances had not gone unnoticed, with reports of Chelsea interested in a £50 million move. Earning his status among Europe’s elite forwards, such attention was to be expected.

Torres, however, was quick to extinguish any speculation over his Liverpool future, claiming it would be “many years” before he’d consider leaving the Merseyside club, despite admitting an eventual desire to return to Atlético to complete some unfinished business.

The 2008-09 season was marked by injury for Torres, although he scored in two memorable Liverpool victories, beating Real Madrid 4-0 at Anfield and the 4-1 trouncing of Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United at Old Trafford – the side who would go on to narrowly eclipse Liverpool in the race for the Premier League title. Torres also produced one of the finest strikes in the Premier League era with a sublime volley against Blackburn, arching the ball into the top left corner with a deft flick of his right boot after taking the ball down on his chest with consummate ease.

In August 2009 Torres signed a new deal at Liverpool. He had found a new home away from home, relishing life in the city. Torres is hardly your typical high-profile international sports star – his fame is merely an inevitable byproduct of his sporting feats as opposed to an elaborate, celebrity lifestyle. Shy by nature, Torres makes no secret of his introverted personality; he never sought the limelight.

In typically understated style, Torres married Olalla Domínguez in May 2009. No elaborate celebrations; no wild party. Just two guests in a private ceremony in a small, local town hall in El Escorial, Madrid.

He’s very much a normal person who plays football for a living. In an era where astronomical wages and extravagant lifestyles are the predominant stereotypes for top-level footballers, Torres goes against the grain. The tattoo on his forearm spells ‘Fernando’, inscribed in Tengwar, J.R.R. Tolkien’s artificial script; slightly quirky and befitting of a player who gives an air of modest self-assurance. Torres has always been content to avoid the headlines where possible, most at ease in the company of friends and family rather than the press. “I am very much a homely person. I am at my most comfortable and relaxed there.”

During his career on Merseyside, far away from the sunny streets of Fuenlabrada, Torres developed a deep affection for the city of Liverpool: “It’s a fundamental part of my life,” he explained.

Not all his pleasures are as simple as his self-professed love for ice cream and The Beatles. His purchase of the Aston Martin DBS from the James Bond film Casino Royale was a rare instance of lavish self-indulgence from a genuinely humble man.

Following Liverpool’s 1-0 Champions League defeat to Marseille in 2007, an angry Torres returned home, pent-up with frustration: “I decided the best way to work the frustration out of my system was to put together two pieces of furniture for the living room.”

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Pragmatic and unorthodox, Torres has always had a unique way of carrying himself – there’s a certain charm about his persona.

On the pitch, Torres’ ascent showed few signs of slowing down. In December 2009 he was named in the FIFPro World XI for the second successive year. Despite knee surgery curtailing his season in April, he still finished as Liverpool’s top scorer with 22 goals. He recovered his fitness in time for the 2010 World Cup. Although his tournament was underwhelming from a personal perspective, Torres played the final 15 minutes in extra-time as Spain were crowned world champions in Johannesburg following Andrés Iniesta’s iconic winning goal in a 1-0 victory over the Netherlands.

Matters began to deteriorate rather rapidly at club level thereafter. Under the management of Roy Hodgson, Liverpool entered a dark era in the club’s history. The striker’s form dropped off dramatically amid murmurs of discontent at his situation. Liverpool had won no silverware during his time at the club so his frustration was, in hindsight, valid.

On 27 January 2011, Chelsea had a £40 million bid rejected for the unsettled forward. Torres proceeded to hand in a formal transfer request, culminating in his £50 million transfer to the Blues on the transfer deadline day – a British transfer record at the time. Chelsea had finally got their man after almost a decade of pursuit.

It would not be overly hyperbolic to liken the move to stepping off the edge of a cliff or falling into the abyss. In footballing terms, it signified the beginning of a truly remarkable fall from grace, from one of Europe’s most feared strikers to a laughing-stock. In doing so, Torres severed all ties with the Liverpool fans that had come to adore him. No longer was he a Kop hero, but a traitor – turning his back on the club when the going got tough.

No player embodies loyalty and dedication so much as Steven Gerrard, and yet the Liverpool captain’s words helped guide Torres in his decision to leave the club: “Think about yourself and do what’s best for you. You have nothing to prove.”

Some regard Torres’s decision as selfish, motivated by money rather than loyalty. The truth is, Gerrard was right; Torres had nothing to prove. His efforts had not been enough to propel Liverpool to glory, through no fault of his own. Torres had it all: pace, devastating finishing ability and an almost-telepathic on-field relationship with Gerrard. Entering his peak years, he wanted to be playing at the highest level, competing for trophies. The lure of Chelsea was too tempting to ignore. A footballer’s career has a short time span and Torres wanted to make the most of that.

For all his love of the city, he did not have that same bond as Gerrard – a scouser born and bred. Leaving Liverpool broke his relationship with the fans, whose expectation of loyalty was shaped by the likes of Gerrard. Torres took the decision to further his career at the expense of his reputation on Merseyside. Gerrard claimed to be “heartbroken”, but the overriding reaction among Liverpool fans was a feeling of anger and betrayal.

As it turned out for Torres, the grass was not greener on the other side, and Chelsea could never offer him that same level of adoration. He managed just one goal in 2010-11 after signing for the Londoners. Whether it was a consequence of his knee surgery inhibiting his natural pace or the emotional and psychological impact of leaving Liverpool behind, Torres had become a shadow of his former self – a lion shorn of its mane.

His finest moment in a Chelsea shirt came in April 2012, scoring a last-minute goal at the Camp Nou to knock Barcelona out in the Champions League. Chelsea would go on to win the competition, beating Bayern Munich in the final on penalties. Torres had fulfilled another ambition, but his powers were undoubtedly on the wane.

The 2012 European Championship saw Torres return to the fore on the international stage, winning the Golden Boot as Spain won their third major honour in succession, defeating Italy 4-0 in the final. Torres was a substitute that game, but came on to score. It proved to be nothing but a false dawn, arguably the final high point before a slow and painful decline into relative obscurity.

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A reunion with Rafa Benítez at Chelsea in 2012 brought about a slight improvement in his form, but Torres remained almost unrecognisable from the irrepressible striker in the red shirt of Liverpool.

The anguish Torres felt in being unable to reproduce his best form was clear to see. He has since described his time at the club as “swimming in wet clothes”. Following another disappointing season in 2013-14 under José Mourinho, Torres joined AC Milan on loan in August 2014 in the hope that a fresh start could reignite his stalled career. Half a season and a solitary goal later, the move to Milan was made permanent in January 2015, only for Torres to agree a loan deal with Atlético Madrid several days later.

The long-awaited homecoming of a local hero back to his boyhood club had finally arrived. Two goals in the second leg of the Copa del Rey last-16 to knock out city rivals Real Madrid turned back the clock to his former glory days – a glimmer of hope that Torres could find himself at his spiritual home. His cyclical journey was complete when, following the sale of Mario Mandžukić to Juventus, El Niño regained his emotive number 9 jersey for the start of the current 2015-16 season.

Well past his peak years, Torres is fulfilling his ambition of returning to where it all began, to complete that unfinished business. The mercurial Frenchman Antoine Griezmann takes the headlines these days at the Vincente Calderón but a special place is reserved in the hearts of the Colchoneros for Torres. In February 2016 he netted his 100th goal for the club versus SD Eibar and now ranks eighth in the all-time scoring charts for Atleti.

Out of contract in the summer, there is a cloud of uncertainty over the Spaniard’s future. With the growing reputations of Major League Soccer and the Chinese Super League, Torres could be tempted to write the final chapter of his career outside of Europe. Whatever his next step, he will always be revered among Atlético fans for the golden years he spent there. Torres stands as a symbol of the club’s success in producing world-class talent.

His finest years undoubtedly came in the red of Liverpool, however: “Those three and a half years changed my entire life,” Torres would say after leaving Anfield. “I had almost everything but titles. I felt like a king, but the team were falling apart.”

Torres will never be considered among the true Liverpool greats, but his time at the club will be remembered fondly. After all, he is unequivocally one of the most talented footballers to wear the Liverpool shirt. The bitter animosity felt by the fans in the wake of his departure has showed signs of easing in recent times.

In 2015 Liverpool held a charity all-stars game at Anfield during which Torres made an emotional return to his former club. ‘Fernando Torres, Liverpool’s Number 9’ rang out from the stands. There is now a sense of gratitude for what he did for the club, intertwined with a feeling of regret and sadness at the manner of his departure, and his sorry decline since.

Rarely does one witness such a spectacular and rapid fall from grace in football as the career of Fernando Torres. From arguably Europe’s most feared striker, with the world at his feet, the Spaniard’s decline has been as bemusing as it has been tragic. For all his accolades and achievements, Torres never quite fulfilled the astronomical heights his precocious talent once promised. Although there is a sadness about the way in which he lost his way, his return to Atlético completes a romantic footballing story – from his boyhood club to the elite of European football, to the depths of despair and back to where it all began.

In Liverpool, the more forgiving fans will look back on his time at the club with great affection for what he achieved, the memories he produced. Back in his childhood community of Fuenlabrada, there is a stadium named in his honour.

In a footballing journey which has yielded glorious highs and agonising lows, Fernando Torres deserves recognition as an iconic face of a golden generation in Spanish football. At the Vicente Calderón he will always be a hero, regarded, rightly so, an Atlético Madrid legend.

By Joel Rabinowitz  @_lfcjoel

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