Mi ídolo, El Niño: Remembering the great career of Fernando Torres

(Image courtesy of PAUL ELLIS/AFP/Getty Images)

The man who brought me joy, along with my first dose of heartbreak, retired last week. I remember the greatness of Fernando Torres from my experiences — primarily those unforgettable years on Merseyside.

When Fernando Torres’ retirement was confirmed after he played his final game for Sagan Tosu last week, my mind was instantly flooded with memories of his time at Liverpool. At his best, “El Niño” was untouchable, the best striker in the world and a true hero of mine, ultimately taking his place on the pantheon of my all-time favourite players immediately below the one and only Steven Gerrard. Obviously.

Torres was undoubtedly at his peak when playing alongside Gerrard in those three and a half blissful years from 2007 to early 2011. He will forever hold iconic status in my mind — as the man who I watched for the most vital part of my childhood as a football fanatic; the man who helped me fall in love with football and gave me my first agonising heartbreak. I have forgiven him since.

One image in particular comes to mind when I think of Torres’ time at Liverpool, along with his career as a whole: the iconic flowing blonde hair, long-sleeved shirt and white sock tape above his deadly Nike T90 boots. It became an expectancy: Torres looked the part, Torres scored goals. Yet upon his arrival in the summer of 2007, I must admit I had only briefly heard of him.

Perhaps I should’ve known more, considering that by this point he had captained Atlético Madrid for four years (the first time coming when he was just 17 years old) and was the club’s leading scorer in each of the previous five campaigns. He had also scored three goals for Spain in the World Cup the summer prior to Liverpool forking out a mere £20 million for his services. Over 100 appearances and 65 goals later, Torres had more than justified this price tag. A central theme of his time on Merseyside was his relationship with his captain, a two-way love-in which led to breathtaking football for the ages. Put simply, the Gerrard-Torres combination took my love of football to an entirely new level.

This partnership didn’t take long to get going. On his home debut against Chelsea, Torres latched onto a Gerrard pass, brushing off a defender and stroking the ball home. This would become a familiar story. From the word go, Torres was an instant, consistent, unstoppable hit. What’s more, this was confirmed with the Liverpool fans producing a song in celebration of their new Spanish hero, as has become custom. However, before Virgil Van Dijk “passing the ball calm as you like” or the affirmative “sí señor” celebrating the genius of Roberto Firmino, came the soundtrack to those glory years of Torres as Liverpool’s relentless goal-getter:

His armband proved he was a red,

Torres, Torres

You’ll Never Walk Alone it said,

Torres, Torres

We bought the lad from sunny Spain,

He gets the ball, he scores again,

Fernando Torres, Liverpool’s number nine!

After his first full season Torres was already a Kop favourite, and at the European Championships in Austria and Switzerland that summer he scored one of the most iconic goals of his career and one of the most iconic in Spanish footballing history. The weighted pass by Xavi, the run as he held off the legendary Philipp Lahm, completed with the deftest of chips over the onrushing Jens Lehmann. This, along with his assist for Cesc Fabregas’ iconic World Cup winning goal two years later, cemented his place in the hearts of Spanish football fans outside of the red and white half of Madrid, as his many glorious strikes for Liverpool made sure of his place in mine.

Torres gets to the ball ahead of German goalkeeper Jens Lehmann to score the winning goal in the Euro 2008 final in Vienna— his nation’s first major title in 44 years. (Image courtesy of AFP/Getty Images).

Of all his great goals, there is one that stands out above the rest. That strike at Old Trafford in 2009. When a hopeless long ball was punted forward, Torres ruthlessly hunted it down and jumped all over it ahead of the apparently unflappable Nemanja Vidić. He then tore down on goal, leaving Vidić in his wake (another recurring theme) and pushing the ball past Edwin Van Der Sar into the corner. It was this flash of brilliance that encapsulated everything he was good at: raw pace and tenacity accompanied by an ice-cold ability to finish chances in front of goal. As Rafael Benítez said upon his arrival, “He has power, pace, is good in the air, scores goals, can dribble and do a lot of things.” Rafa was right.

I was lucky enough to see him play live for Liverpool on numerous occasions. Another great memory of El Niño I will cherish was the first of these games, perhaps one of his most dominant of all the times he pulled on the red shirt. In a 4-1 home win vs Portsmouth, Torres scored twice and oozed class. Every time the ball came near him, the crowd expected something, and he very rarely failed to deliver. Alongside Gerrard, Torres and Liverpool were breath-taking and this lingering memory of seeing him live in the flesh for the first time is something that will live with me forever.

Then came the heartbreak. I remember hearing rumours that the fateful move to Chelsea could happen, but refusing to believe it would go through, as with Gerrard years before. Why would he want to leave? He was adored at Liverpool. But he did, and three days later, his first game for his new club came against…Liverpool, ironically enough. It had to happen, and I had to be there.

I was lucky enough to attend, thanks to my Chelsea-loving uncle who had been so sympathetic in the build-up. It was certainly a turning point, and I am not afraid to admit that I was disgusted at him for having done such a thing. This disgust was only heightened when Torres claimed upon signing for Chelsea that he was now “at one of the top-level clubs in the world” and taking a “big step forward” in his career.

Of course, it didn’t quite work out that way. Setting aside the trophies he went on to win in West London, Torres never regained the spark he had at Liverpool, and it is fair to say that the best of the 18 years of his stellar career were spent at the Reds.

Once the game started, vitriolic hatred rained down from the away end just to my left, as I hid my red allegiances in a vastly blue corner of the home stand. The ill-feeling towards Liverpool’s former hero was both audible and visible, with Reds fans unfurling a banner at kick off displaying the message “He who betrays will always walk alone.”

Torn and dismantled “Torres 9” Liverpool shirts littered the area behind the goal which, ironically enough, El Niño had no luck in finding during the first half. And with every bad touch or wayward strike at the goal behind which Liverpool supporters stood, the whistles and hisses for their former hero grew louder. Torres’ impatience grew and Liverpool won the game 1-0, along with the week. With Torres making way, Kenny Dalglish had brought in Andy Carroll and (rather more memorably) Luis Suárez to fill the void…

Admittedly, the hatred subsided somewhat, and it has been sad to see Torres’ career wind down since. However, there are some players who will have an everlasting effect on a football fan, providing them with countless memories, moments they can cherish for the rest of their football-watching lives. Torres, alongside Gerrard, was that player for me. When I think of Torres, I think of the look. I think of the goals. I think of the partnership with Gerrard. I try to forget the sad betrayal or the less productive loan spells in the waning years of his career. He was one of the greatest players of an incredible generation in which I feel privileged to have grown up watching football in. He was unique.

Gracias por todo, El Niño.

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