“We had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”
When Fernando Torres stepped back onto the pitch of the Vicente Calderón, it took him a moment to take everything in. He looked around at the 40,000 fans, some of whom had queued up for hours just to see his unveiling, and a smile broke out across his face. It was as if he had never left. Seven and a half years later, the prodigal son was home.
It is hard to describe what Torres means to Atleti fans. He is an idol, a player who came up through the ranks and gave hope to Atlético in their darkest hour. When Torres made his debut aged 17, they were languishing in Segunda after being relegated for the first time in 2000. They made it back to Spain’s top flight, and Torres soon became one of the Rojiblancos’ most important players, scoring 13 goals in his first season in La Liga, and 19 the next. They dubbed him ‘El Niño’ — the Kid — and the name stuck.
It was no surprise when Torres decided to leave Atlético for Liverpool in May 2007. At 23, he would not be a kid for much longer, even if the moniker remained. There was a sense that he had outgrown his turbulent boyhood club and was in need of a new challenge. “I hope this is not goodbye but ‘see you later,'” he said. “I hope I’ll be back one day when the club is at the level it deserves to be.” With that, the fresh-faced, eager Torres would fly the nest.
He was given the No. 9 jersey at Liverpool and instantly became a hero at Anfield, scoring a remarkable 33 goals in his first season in England and establishing himself as one of the world’s best. Over the next two seasons he continued to notch up impressive stats, coming third in the Ballon D’Or and scoring the goal that gave Spain their first international trophy since 1964.
Torres was in his prime, but just like his old club Liverpool soon spiralled into chaos. Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano left, as did Rafa Benítez, who had built a team around the Spanish striker. Torres demanded to leave, and when his transfer request was rejected, Roman Abramovich pounced to sign him for an extortionate £50m. Liverpool fans turned on the Anfield idol, but the reality was that Torres had simply wanted to escape the club’s imminent crisis.
At Chelsea he was the odd one out, and never felt at home. He was forced to adapt to a style that did not suit him, and his lack of continuity in the team meant that he was rarely allowed to show his ability. Torres experienced a dramatic decline in form, and was no longer the fearsome forward he had been at Liverpool. Instead he was a shadow of that blonde blur; wasteful, lethargic and indifferent. He became the elephant in the room at Stamford Bridge — everyone knew he was there, but nobody wanted to acknowledge his presence. Even when Benítez was appointed interim manager in 2012, it did nothing to reinvigorate Torres. It came as a relief when he was loaned out to Milan last summer.
Meanwhile, Atleti’s fortunes had been reversed. Traditionally they had been branded ‘El Pupas’, the jinxed one, for the tragicomic ways they would find to lose matches, but no more. The return of club legend Diego Simeone, this time as a manager, coincided with Atlético re-establishing themselves at the top of Spanish football. Since his appointment in 2011, they have won five trophies, reaching the Champions League final last year and breaking the long-held duopoly between Real and Barça to win La Liga. It is all thanks to El Cholo.
Chelsea offloaded Torres permanently to Milan in January, and this paved the way for Atlético to sign him on loan until 2016. It is fitting that Torres decided to return with the club back where it belongs, but his move was not purely for sentimental reasons. Simeone had been monitoring Torres carefully, and still felt that he had something to give to his team. Now he faces one of his most difficult challenges yet: getting Torres back to his best.
Many have claimed that it is an impossible task, but so far the signs have been encouraging. In his first spell Torres had failed to beat Real Madrid or score at the Santiago Bernabéu, but within two weeks of his presentation he had done both. In the first leg of their Copa del Rey tie he defeated Real, and eight days later he scored two expertly-taken goals to knock Atleti’s biggest rivals out of the competition and stun the Bernabéu. Although they were eliminated in the quarter-finals against Barça, Torres again scored in the opening minute. With an excellent control and a deft flick away from his ex-Liverpool teammate Mascherano, Torres arrows the ball in off the post and runs away to kiss the turf of the Vicente Calderón, his only true home. It was a finish reminiscent of his heyday, and a reminder of his enduring qualities.
Perhaps Torres’ best days are behind him, but if anyone is to get the best out of him, it is Diego Simeone and his boyhood club. There is little pressure on him to succeed, and this is a chance for El Niño to prove himself again. Torres has not been brought back from the dead, but just like the prodigal son he has returned.