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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 do better than Fernando Torres.

El Nino has announced his retirement and I am almost embarrassed at the severity of my reaction.

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

But like so many others, I have been 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 actually 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 Atletico 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 – but it was not a reference to the Anfield anthem.

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

I would never put Torres alongside the like of Thierry Henry and Alan Shearer, 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.

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

Unstoppable in full flight

AFP
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Unstoppable in full flight

Premier League historians will remember him as the one player who not only discomforted Nemanja Vidic, but terrorised him.

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.

The fear of missing chances crippled him.

Laughing stock

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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.

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 dwarfed the majority of 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 underwent a permanent change.

Never have I seen a player who was once world-class look so bereft of confidence.

Perhaps his youthful face and doe-eyed expressions contributed to it, but I found it impossible not to feel sympathetic.

Forever baby-faced

AFP
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Forever baby-faced

And yet, 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.

However, 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.

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 in 2016.

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 recorded a century of goals in Spanish football to much appreciation.

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 his underwhelming swansong in Japan was more befitting his endearingly 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 remember him as a exceptional player whose hardships only served to create a character of lovable complexity.

Enjoy retirement, El Nino.


NEXT: It’s been a year since the most inexplicable (and brilliant) moment is football history