Few names evoke the first footballing decade of the new millennium as effectively as Fernando Torres. He fits the brief irresistibly, graduating to Atlético Madrid’s first team in 2001 and peaking at Anfield prior to his 2011 departure. His subsequent move to Chelsea, short-lived stint at AC Milan, emotional return to Atlético, and intriguing swansong in Japan are more than mere footnotes in his remarkable career, but history will remember Torres as the dominant forward he was in the 2000s.
Torres is nicknamed El Niño: The Kid. Now 35, his retirement announced, the epithet remains – he is immortalised as the fresh-faced talent who scorched his way through the Atlético Madrid youth system. Born in Fuenlabrada, Torres made the short journey into the capital in 1995 having scored 55 league goals for youth side Rayo 13. He had no hesitation when Atlético came calling, having been imbibed with his grandfather’s love for Los Rojiblancos.
Success in the academy followed, and it became increasingly clear to the club that they might have somebody special on their hands. It was, of course, not yet known that he would go on to define an era, but those who make it their business to do so were certainly keeping a watchful eye on his progress. Just a year after joining Atlético, he was the subject of a failed raid by their city rivals, Real Madrid.
In 1998, he triumphed in the prestigious Nike Cup, and was subsequently voted the best player in Europe in his age group. The Spaniard is separated from Cristiano Ronaldo by less than a year, but it was not the Sporting talent who was making the biggest waves.
As a result of his ever-rising stock, Torres had a release clause set at €3m before he had even turned 16. This was included in his first professional contract, signed in 1999. The age of El Niño was about to dawn.
It was apparent by the turn of the century that Torres was ready to move on from youth football. A cracked shinbone briefly halted his meteoric rise, but he was nonetheless handed his senior club debut before the end of the 2000/01 season amidst a clamour amongst fans to see the boy who had been setting the academy alight. He showed no signs of slowing down: his first senior goal followed just a week after his first appearance.
Anyone who had been reluctant to pay him attention up to now was forced to do so in the summer of 2001. Torres travelled to the Under-16 European Championship with Spain, where it became abundantly clear that The Kid had grown up mighty quick. He departed a victor, having scored a tournament-high seven goals, including the winning strike in the final against France. Unsurprisingly, he was heralded as the Player of the Tournament.
He returned to the Vicente Calderón a bona fide member of the first-team setup. His goal output finally took something of a dip, the first indication that Torres might actually be human, but the six league goals paint an incomplete picture. The integration into the senior side was a relatively smooth one: he featured 36 times on the way to Atlético’s return to LaLiga. His first goal, against Levante, was a vivid indication that Torres’ talents translated to the senior tier, an audacious lob from the edge of the box that gave fans a taste of the brilliance to which they would grow accustomed. Atlético were promoted as champions.
Torres duly arrived in LaLiga in the summer of 2002, having established himself as a mainstay in Atlético’s starting XI. The goals that had briefly been in short supply came flooding back as El Niño netted 13 times in the Spanish top flight, making him the club’s top scorer and helping to guide Atlético to an 11th-place finish. By the end of the next campaign, he was the third top scorer in the league, and his contributions dragged Los Rojiblancos to an impressive seventh place. Still a teenager, he was rewarded with the captain’s armband.
This was not the Atlético Madrid that modern fans would recognise. Torres was made captain of a ship in disarray, and year after year was called upon to steady it. The club’s sporting director, Jesús García Pitarch, admitted shortly before the striker departed that it was “ridiculous” that he was still there. There was an undeniable truth in this, and it was hardly surprising that Torres began to grow weary with carrying his boyhood club. He contributed the most goals in 2004/05, just as he had done in the preceding two campaigns, and then he did the same the next season. And the next.
In total, by the summer of 2007, he had amassed 75 goals in 173 top-flight games and almost single-handedly kept Atlético in LaLiga. It is not unreasonable to suggest that the club would never have grown into the powerhouse it is today were it not for the incredible contributions of a young but astutely mature Torres.
The favourite son could not stay at home forever, though. Torres had been repeatedly linked with a move to England, from almost as soon as he reached Atlético’s first team, but until this point the captaincy had weighed heavily enough on him to keep him anchored. It was the words written on the inside of that armband that ultimately provided the clue to his next destination: You’ll Never Walk Alone.
In fact, the link to Liverpool was little more than incidental. Torres and a group of friends had simply liked the motto when they heard it and chosen to adopt it as their own, and while the forward was unwilling to get the sentiment tattooed, he chose to carry it with him in another form. Nobody was even meant to see it, but the armband came loose one game. From this moment, the move seemed almost like fate.
On a more mundane level, it was Rafael Benítez, rather than ethereal forces, that brought Torres to Merseyside. The manager broke Liverpool’s transfer record to unite with his fellow Spaniard, reportedly agreeing to a fee in the region of £25m. Any doubters concerned by the hefty price tag were quickly silenced: El Niño, now in his floppy-haired phase, was reaching his purest form.
No longer tasked with carrying the entire hopes of a football club, Torres played with a newfound freedom at Liverpool. Equally, Steven Gerrard was palpably relieved at having someone with whom he could share his own burden, and the two struck up an immediate chemistry. Torres was suddenly receiving the kind of service he had rarely experienced, and he thrived off it. It only took until his home debut to get off the mark. Chelsea got their first glimpse of a man who would go on to torment them, who they could only stop by buying him. Gerrard picked him out, he breezed beyond Tal Ben Haim and slotted it away. Simple. Ruthless.
Torres continued in this vein throughout the campaign. Beyond the adoring walls of the Calderón, there had always been lingering doubts in Spain about whether he really had the clinical touch required of an elite striker, but for those keeping an eye on his progress in England, these concerns were being emphatically allayed.
Torres plundered 24 league goals in his debut season, chipping in with four assists for good measure. He also contributed a hat-trick in his only League Cup appearance, and notched six goals on the way to the Champions League semi-finals. The sheer variety of these goals was almost as impressive as the number and he was already achieving the kind of hero status he had earned at Atlético.
The ultimate vindication came at Euro 2008. The countrymen who had questioned him, had viewed him as a fun but frustrating forward, bowed down in adulation as he scored the goal that crowned the start of Spain’s international dominance. As Jens Lehmann came rushing out, he could only watch on in horror as Torres stole in before him, easing Phillip Lahm away before producing a deft chip into the corner for the only goal of the final. The strength, the composure, the delicacy – only occasionally does a forward boast such a complete skill set.
Torres duly returned to Liverpool as a European champion, having finally earned universal recognition as one of the game’s best strikers. The Anfield crowd were well and truly besotted – nobody ever thought that there could one day be a number 9 to surpass Robbie Fowler, a man so good he was simply nicknamed ‘God’, but this felt like the second coming.
In his first game back, he fired one in from well outside the box. After an injury-enforced interlude, he returned to sink Everton with a brace in the derby. Scousers were growing their hair out. A proliferation of dogs named ‘Nando’ could be found throughout the city. He was the focus of a Nike advert that encapsulated the extent to which he had captured Liverpool hearts and minds. This was someone special, and everyone watching him knew it.
Sadly, the injuries were to start mounting up. His hamstring issue recurred and proved troublesome for much of the 2008/09 campaign, such that he only managed 24 appearances in the league. He still found time to score a decisive brace against Chelsea, and produce an iconic ‘five times’ celebration after scoring in a 4-1 victory over Manchester United, but as the decade came to a close it began to become apparent that Torres was slowly descending from his dizzying peak.
Even injury-plagued, though, he was able to make the PFA Team of the Year for a second consecutive season. In the last match of the campaign, he made it 50 Liverpool goals in all competitions since joining, a landmark reached even more quickly than Fowler had managed. He marked the occasion with a bullet header, generating improbable power from an awkward position to send the ball flying into the top corner. Head, feet, it did not matter: when he made it to the pitch, he would take his chances.
Eighteen league goals followed in 2009/10 – once again a return of almost a goal a game – but the season would ultimately end for Torres in April after a knee issue required surgery. By this point, Liverpool were descending into farce on par with the sort that Torres had left behind at Atlético, and he once again found himself a shining light in a team largely bereft of direction. He had left his homeland craving titles and they were looking ever more distant.
An eventual move was thus almost inevitable, although this did not prevent the manner of the departure breaking Liverpool hearts. Chelsea parted with £50m to acquire their old foe on a dramatic January deadline day in 2011, but in truth the London club never really received the world-beater they thought they had signed. It was little surprise that Torres’ body began to betray him after close to a decade of carrying his sides. The signs had been there while he was still at Liverpool, and it was only ever a shadow of El Niño that pulled on a Chelsea shirt.
He did at least gain the titles that had for so long eluded him – personal triumph was traded for European glory. These accolades were no less than his career warranted, even if he was not pivotal in guiding Chelsea to the successes. Factoring in later silverware from his return to Atlético, his honours list is now an extensive one: Champions League winner, two-time Europa League champion and FA Cup victor reads very nicely alongside the title of European and world champion.
It is the period where his domestic trophy cabinet remained barren, however, for which he will principally be remembered. The Torres of the 2000s may not always have been blessed with world-class teammates, but he was a force like no other, and good enough to win the hearts of two cities and, eventually, a nation.
By James Martin @JamesMartin013