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EL NINO

Fernando Torres was football’s flawed hero I couldn’t help but love wholeheartedly

Unplayable at his best, unselectable at his worst, enigmatic throughout

If an experienced screenwriter was tasked with devising a character to appeal purely to me, they wouldn’t be able to create anyone better than Fernando Torres.

When El Nino has announced his retirement in 2019, I was almost embarrassed at the severity of my reaction.

I do not support any of the clubs he represented, nor am I even partially Spanish.

But like so many others, I was utterly compelled by his career.

Adios

AP:Associated Press
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Adios

From his introduction to football as a goalkeeper-turned-poacher – who impressed Atletico Madrid scouts by scoring 55 goals in a season at Under-10 level – to winning three consecutive international trophies, culminating in a Golden Boot at Euro 2012, he’s captivated at every turn.

The crux of Torres’ narrative occurred in England, where he reached a glorious peak before suffering a much-publicised fall from grace either side of a £50million transfer.

Before that, let’s go back to the start…

Torres with his future coach, Diego Simeone

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Torres with his future coach, Diego Simeone

His first full season in professional football was spent in Spain’s second tier where he eased himself in with six goals to help Atleti gain promotion to La Liga in 2001/02.

After an impressive debut top-flight campaign, Roman Abramovich bid £28million (which was a lot at the time) for the 19-year-old, but Atletico resisted.

Torres was named club captain before his 20th birthday, and the armband inspired him to a sustained period of consistent goalscoring.

He was Atleti’s top scorer five seasons in a row — a club record equalled by Antoine Griezmann in 2018/19.

Buzz cut

EPA
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Buzz cut

Los Rojiblancos were not as competitive then as they have been under Diego Simeone.

Despite Torres’ heroics, they failed to finish higher than 7th between 2002 – 2007.

And so when Rafa Bentiez’s Liverpool approached the Spanish club in 2007, El Nino knew he had to leave his beloved club to give his talent the platform it deserved.

His move to Liverpool did not come as a surprise.

Years earlier, an eagle-eyed photographer spotted a phrase printed in English on the inside of his captain’s armband: We’ll Never Walk Alone.

Not a buzz cut

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Not a buzz cut

The motto was adopted by Torres’ group of friends – the rest of the group had it tattooed on them – and was not an intentional reference to the Anfield anthem.

Still, the photo excited Kopites everywhere and the rumours may well have fed into the club’s consciousness.

I would never put Torres alongside the like of Thierry Henry, Alan Shearer and Sergio Aguero, but I maintain, at his peak, he was the most complete striker in Premier League history.

He scored headers like a veteran target man, volleys like Van Basten, one-on-ones with the acceleration of an Olympic sprinter.

Liverpool fans had been spoiled with Robbie Fowler, the explosive years of Michael Owen, and, going back generations, they had front row seats for Ian Rush and Roger Hunt.

At his best, Torres was a Frankenstein’s monster of all Anfield’s most-celebrated goalscorers from the past, adding yet more prestige to the No9 shirt.
Premier League historians will remember him as the one player who not only discomforted Nemanja Vidic, but terrorised him.

He finished third at the 2008 Ballon d’Or ceremony, with Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo adjudged the only superior players.

Unstoppable in full flight

AFP
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Unstoppable in full flight

Then in January 2010, seven years after his first attempt, Abramovich got his man.

Torres signed for Chelsea as part of a £50million transfer that prompted widespread criticism of spiralling transfer fees and the morality of financial domination.

The Spaniard’s spell at Stamford Bridge is the key phase in his character arc.

Where before he was a free-scoring predator who feasted on goals, suddenly he was sapped of confidence and appeared to shy away from shooting opportunities.

Every legendary poacher will tell you the key to becoming a great goalscorer is to put the misses out of your mind and focus on scoring the next one, but Torres found that too tough an ask in Chelsea blue.

The fear of missing chances crippled him.

Laughing stock

Getty - Contributor
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Laughing stock

Three infamous seconds at Old Trafford in September 2011 encapsulated the entire middle act of his career.

After a desperately poor start to the season, Torres played like his Liverpool incarnation in a breathless basketball-style game.

An expert finish just after half-time hinted at a new dawn for El Nino.

Then in the 83rd minute, he timed a run perfectly before skilfully rounding David De Gea to leave the goal at his mercy.

But he somehow skewed his left-foot finish wide of the near post, prompting a reaction from Old Trafford that eclipsed most goal celebrations.

Brilliance offset by inexplicable incompetence — Torres’ Premier League existence distilled.

Unforgettable

AFP
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Unforgettable

The reason for Torres’ decline, during what should have been his prime years, remains a mystery.

Every player is susceptible to fluctuations in form, but he succumbed to a permanent change.

Never have I seen a player who was once world-class look so bereft of confidence for such a sustained period of time.

Perhaps his youthful face and doe-eyed expressions contributed to it, but I found it impossible not to drown in sympathy.

Forever baby-faced

AFP
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Forever baby-faced

Amid the pessimism, there were golden moments that punctured the narrative.

Gary Neville failed to contain his excitement when Torres skipped past Victor Valdes at the Nou Camp to ensure the Blues’ progression to the Champions League final in 2012.

The last-gasp goal is the enduring memory of that night, although technically it was redundant as Chelsea would have progressed on away goals regardless.
Not long after the Blues’ victory in Munich, Torres won the Golden Boot at Euro 2012 as he completed a hat-trick of international trophies with a era-defining Spain side.

His contribution to Chelsea’s Europa League triumph the following year is often overlooked by those outside West London.

Torres scored in the round of 16, quarter-finals (both legs), semi-final, and the final.

While neutrals reflect on his Stamford Bridge tenure as something of a disaster, many Chelsea fans have fond memories of his three-and-a-half seasons in West London.

They would have expected more than 45 goals in 172 games from a £50million striker but as a key contributor to the squad who won two European trophies in two seasons, he ultimately endeared himself to supporters through memorable moments.

His trophy cabinet is not to be sniffed at

PA:Press Association
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His trophy cabinet is not to be sniffed at

In 2014, he returned to the Vicente Calderon (via Milan), first on loan, then permanently two years later.

45,000 fans attended his unveiling, welcoming him home with open arms and no resentment in their hearts.

Prime Torres never reemerged but there was something about the red and white stripes that cleansed him and restored his love of the game.

He ticked along, giving his all when required, and reached a century of goals in Spanish football to much celebration.

He could have retired at the end of the 2017/18 campaign — his last game being Atletico’s Europa League final victory over Marseille.

But that would have been too neat for Torres.

His underwhelming swansong in Japan was more befitting of his beguilingly imperfect career.

Satisfaction

EPA
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Satisfaction

If you break it down into seasons, he probably endured more frustrating campaigns than he enjoyed fruitful ones.

Regardless, I will always remember him as a exceptional player whose hardships only served to create a character of lovable complexity.


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