Long Reads

Fernando Torres – Atlético Madrid’s El Niño

Fernando Torres - Atlético Madrid's iconic striker

As with most football clubs honouring their outstanding players when the curtain is finally drawn down on a glittering career, atleticodemadrid.com, probably provide the most succinct reflection on the high regard in which Fernando Torres is viewed by all Atleti fans. In just six words, they capture the essence of his contribution to the cause. “Fernando Torres Atlético de Madrid legend.”

Torres left his beloved Vicente Calderón after being seduced away to Liverpool by Rafael Benítez in 2007 to become the most feared striker in English football, and then moved to Chelsea where, despite an apparent drop in form, won FA Cup, Europa League and Champions League winner’s medals before returning home to Atleti. For fans of Los Colchoneros however, it will always be his first term with the club from to 2001 until the move to Merseyside that defined his legendary status. It was the time of El Niño, when ‘the Boy’ became not only a man but the man.

Born in Fuenlabrada, in the Madrid metropolitan area, Fernando José Torres Sanz was destined to be an Atleti fan. Eulalio, his maternal grandfather would simply not allow anything different to happen, and when the callow youth made his debut for the club against Leganes on 27 May 2001, the 17-year-old forward began to deliver on his grandfather’s aspirations. 

Then in the Segunda División, having suffered relegation from Spain’s top tier, Atleti’s young striker’s debut would hardly have caused many ripples in the country’s football media. In the seasons to come, however, before he was whisked away to the treasure trove finances of the Premier League, all that would change. 

He joined the club’s academy at 11 years of age, and progressed through the junior ranks of the club, being noted at each level as someone to be fast-tracked for success. In 1998, he won the Nike Cup as part of Atlético’s U15 team and was later voted as the top player in Europe for his age group. It was therefore of little surprise when, the following year, the club secured his services with a professional contract. Nurturing the rare talent that was blooming in their ranks, the club were anxious to both progress and protect the youngster, and a period with the youth team followed, before the long-anticipated promotion to the first team. 

An injury to his shin curtailed mush of the aspirations in the 2000-01 season, but when the new season began, it was time for El Niño to deploy his talents. Following the debut, a week later, he would score his first goal in the club’s iconic Rojiblancos shirt, netting against Albacete. It would however, be his only strike of the season, and Atleti narrowly missed out on promotion, losing out to CD Tenerife on the head-to-head analysis after finishing level on points with the club from the Canary Islands. 

The following term they would breach that gap, ending as champions by a clear eight points ahead of Racing Santander. The young Torres would play in 36 of the 42 league games that season, but his return of six strikes was still less than impressive. Perhaps it was the less sophisticated patterns of play in the lower division that failed to draw the best from his talents, but the club’s first term back in the top tier revealed the true talent of Fernando Torres. Thirteen goals in 29 games was a promising return for the young striker and already rave notices were being posted of what the striker could achieve. In England, by the summer of 2003, Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich had taken over at Chelsea and set about accumulating players with the zeal of a Panini sticker collector. A reported bid of almost £30 million was insufficient to persuade Atleti to part with their asset. The following seasons would show it to be a wise decision. Abramovich would be back though.

The following season ended with Torres ranked as the third-highest goalscorer in Spain. His 29 goals in 35 appearances would rank as the best in his career at the Vicente Calderón, and still yet short of 20 years old, he took the armband as captain of the first team. On the banks of Madrid’s Manzanares river, the adulation for Niño would flow from the terraces in waves. 

Largely driven by his goals, Torres would send Atleti into a seventh-place finish in the league, and qualify them for the Intertoto Cup. Chelsea again came knocking in the summer, club president Enrique Cerezo was insistent that no deal would be considered. At least not at that time, anyway.

The seasons ran on, and while Torres continued to score regularly, often picking on the league’s best teams to deliver – he seemed to have a particular taste for scoring against Barcelona – Atleti seemed unable to use the impetus offered by his goals to progress in the league. Successive ninth, tenth and then seventh finishes in the league while Torres scored consistently, and led the line with power and promise suggested a parting of the ways may now be inevitable. Making his debut in 2003, Torres had now also become a regular in the growing success of Spain’s national team. There was no chance of Atleti hiding their brightest light under a bushel any longer. After the 2006 World Cup, Torres let it be known that he had turned down an offer to join Chelsea over the summer. Although it seemed increasingly likely that England would be the destination in any transfer for the striker, West London was not likely to be set on his radar. 

Another successful season with 14 league goals, but seeing Atleti only finishing seventh in the league, would both underscore his quality, and be his last term at the club. There was now a feeding frenzy among the top English clubs to secure his services, but with press reports that inside his captain’s armband Torres had written the Liverpool mantra of ‘you’ll never walk alone” it seemed that compatriot Rafael Benítez had the inside track in the race for his signature. A deal, with Luis García going the other way, complicating any calculation of the value placed on Torres, was agreed and after six years of hero worship, Fernando Torres called a press conference in Madrid on 4 July to bid a tearful farewell to Atleti.

They say ‘never go back’, but the lure of a return to see out his playing days with the club his grandfather had imbued a love for was always going to be an option too tempting to resist. He would return first on loan in 2015, then as a full signing. His last three seasons with the club would see just 160 appearances and 38 goals across all competitions. No small measure for a player whose physical abilities had been gnawed away at by age and injury.

In the final game of the 2017-18 season, almost two decades since he pulled on the Rojiblancos jersey for the first time as an Atlético Madrid first team player, he played his final game for the club against Eibar. Across both terms, El Niño would play 404 games for the club, scoring 129 goals. As quoted on the club’s website, “He came to Atlético de Madrid as a kid and he’s leaving as a legend.”

About the author

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Gary Thacker

Now living in Spain, Gary is the author of two books about football and writes for a number of high profile magazines and websites. He also appears regularly on podcast and had worked for BBC Radio and talkSPORT. In 2017, he was shortlisted for the FSF 'Blogger of the year' award.

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