Striding the length of the Barcelona half with no defender within fifteen yards of him, the striker bore down on goal. With a shimmy to his right, he skipped past Victor Valdes and stroked the ball into the empty net. Game over. Barcelona has been eliminated from the Champions League. Co-commentator Gary Neville releases an orgasmic yell – partly in joy, partly in disbelief. Disbelief that Barcelona, the greatest team of their generation, heavily fancied to do the impossible by retaining their UEFA Champions League crown, had been eliminated by a poor Chelsea team. But disbelief also, over the scorer of the knockout punch: Fernando Torres.
Four years earlier in Vienna, Fernando Torres burst past Philipp Lahm, lifting the ball past Jens Lehmann as Spain secured a long-awaited first international trophy. In scoring, Torres showed the acceleration and composure that had captivated Anfield the season before. Torres signed for Liverpool for £20 million twelve months prior. He scored 24 league goals that year, becoming the first Liverpool striker to score over 20 league goals in a season after “God” first roamed Anfield. While Liverpool fans looked at Torres as the second coming, Spanish fans would not have known how important his Cup-winning goal would prove to be. It sparked a period of unparalleled dominance in international football. Torres kicked it all off, but his own fortunes would never quite match the rise of his teammates.
Born into the premier Striker’s school
Sometimes, clubs get unwittingly associated with something. Atletico Madrid has become known as a striker’s haven. The likes of Christian Vieri and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink starred in the late 90s before Diego Forlan, Sergio Aguero, Radamel Falcao and Diego Costa confirmed the Vincente Calderon as a striker’s ideal hunting ground. In between all these, a Madrid boy called Fernando Jose Torres Sanz burst onto the scene on his way to scoring 82 goals in a golden first spell that saw him become club captain at 19 years old, a Spanish record.
Torres joined the Benitez revolution at Liverpool and enjoyed his most fruitful period even as the team consistently flattered to deceive. He formed a devastating partnership with Steven Gerrard as both players thrived in Benitez’ counter-attacking team. He cemented his reputation as the most feared striker in Europe by tormenting Manchester United’s Nemanja Vidic on multiple occasions. Fresh from dismantling Real Madrid 4-0 at Anfield, Torres helped Liverpool down their Mancunian rivals 4-1 at Old Trafford. Though the striker only scored once (the equaliser), he ran Vidic ragged, eventually causing the Serb to see red (and a lot of blonde) as Liverpool recorded a famous victory. Liverpool eventually fell away, finishing four points behind United in an underwhelming title raise. For Torres, performances rarely got as good as that fateful Manchester afternoon, but paradoxically, team success would slowly come for him – away from Anfield.
Saving his best for European Championships
One thing is sure. Fernando Torres’ international legacy is secure. His World Cup record is decent – three goals across two tournaments. The striker saved his best for continental competition, finals especially. He scored in four of them: UEFA U-16 Championship, UEFA U-19 Championship, and Euro Finals in 2008 and 2012. This impact is sometimes forgotten. Torres won the golden boot at the 2012 tournament, an achievement coated in irony. Not only was Torres past his best at the tournament, but Del Bosque’s side was also known for their “strikerless” formation, making it a bit of a peculiarity that one of their forwards secured the Golden Boot. Such are the contradictions of Torres’ career.
Yet his records and medal haul speak for him. Third on the list of Spain’s all-time top scorers, he fits just below Raul and David Villa, the finest Spanish strikers of their respective generations. Top scorer in European Championships and FIFA Confederations Cups, Torres has managed to remain influential even as his productivity diminished.
The taming of El Nino
It is his Chelsea spell that best exemplifies the puzzle of Torres’ career. On the one hand, he fell way short of his £50 million price tag. He scored just 20 league goals in 4 years – less than in his Liverpool debut season alone. He became the butt of many jokes especially as it took him 14 games to score his first goal for the club. Chelsea fans quickly grew tired of their Spanish flop, comparing him to Andriy Shevchenko, another striking great that fluffed his lines in London. For Torres, he had gone from plundering goals for fun at Atletico and Liverpool to bareness at Chelsea. From a striker’s haven to a finisher’s graveyard.
But viewing Torres’ Chelsea stint as a failure would be slightly harsh. He scored some important goals – the winner in the 2013 Europa League Final and that Champions League goal against Barcelona stick in mind. Admittedly, there were shocking misses too. The Spaniard did manage to secure both major continental trophies and the FA Cup to furnish his trophy cabinet. Ultimately, injury and psychological fragility affected Torres more than anyone could have expected. Was he rushed back too quickly for the 2010 World Cup? Did the departure of Rafa Benitez expose the flaws in his game? Or was the weight of expectation simply too much at Chelsea? It is hard to tell. What is clear is that from 2010 onwards, Torres was never the same player. In effect, his career has been one of two halves.
No place like home
Fernando Torres is back at Atletico Madrid, enjoying a mini-renaissance as a reliable backup after an aborted Milanese sojourn. His presence in Diego Simeone’s squad remains a slightly awkward one. His contract expires at the end of the season. Does China beckon? If he goes, more than one watcher would still wonder what exactly happened to the Spanish ace. But how can anyone doubt his pedigree? He has achieved too much to deserve that. The first coming of Fernando Torres was a force of nature, rightfully nicknamed El Nino (the kid), he made us all believers. The second half of Torres’ career saw him labour in anguish to recreate the magic of his youth. Yet he achieved a lot more in this second, lesser portion. That is perhaps the saddest contrast. Torres often found himself surrounded by successful without being able to fully enjoy it as he railed against his own sudden inadequacies. Even as he won golden boots and scored in finals, we yearned for the real El Nino, long gone at this point.
Like Ronaldo, injury robbed Torres of the explosiveness that made his devastating. That is where the similarity ends. Unlike Il Fenomeno, Torres’ finishing could not compensate for the lost athleticism. But the biggest thing Torres lost is his confidence. In my view, his biggest legacy is showing us the fragility of the body and mind of a modern striker. That is what made Torres’ struggles so hard to watch and why his mini-redemption at Atletico is so heart-warming. What he could do once do with instinct and poise, he tries to recreate through the sheer force of will. Rarely does it work out. Still, he keeps trying. The length and suddenness of his decline may exclude Torres from the upper echelons of footballing greatness, but his personal records and trophy haul make secure his status. Long live El Nino.