WHEN the cloak of darkness falls upon Madrid in the weeks before spring’s arrival, the temperature drops suddenly and gusts blow across the city. Yet over on the banks of the Manzanares River, at the Vicente Calderón Stadium, there is a flame that always burns.
To understand what Fernando Torres means to supporters of Atlético Madrid, imagine the family of six who have driven two hours on a school night from a town in La Mancha, where the windmills are immortalised by Miguel de Cervantes in the novel Don Quixote.
Torres has not been introduced, having only been selected as a substitute, but with Atlético 2-0 ahead at half-time against Real Sociedad, he takes to the pitch and begins to warm up.
One of the young boys, no older than eight, spots him. “El Niño Torres!” he yaps. “Look, El Niño Torres!” His brothers break from an argument and stare out across the verdant field in front.
Before kick-off, when Torres’s name was announced, the raucous cheers bounced off the ramparts of this tattered football ground, which sits in the working-class south of Spain’s capital, not too far from where Torres grew up. Arganzuela is an industrial neighbourhood and such is the volume of noise it would probably have been enough to conceal the rumble of the M-30 motorway, which runs beneath the west stand while operational on non-match days.
It is a challenge to explain exactly how much of a hero Torres is at the Calderón, where the goal that won the 2008 European Championships, Spain’s first international tournament in 44 years, was believed to be Atlético’s, not only because Torres scored it but also because he celebrated the achievement that night, and then the World Cup in 2010, by decorating himself in an Atlético flag. By then, Torres had left the club and yet soon after his departure in 2007 Liverpool shirts were worn inside the Calderón.
Back home now, after seven-and-a-half seasons away, Torres’s presence is not required. Atlético end up winning 3-0, squashing Sociedad with a display of considerable physical strength and unity. Not one of their players is a real star. Under Diego Simeone, the team is king.
In fact, there is a sense Atlético might not need Torres much longer. He is not really El Niño (the Kid) any more and, rather, a near 32-year-old father of three with his best years behind him. Because Torres is on loan from AC Milan and because, at the time of our interview, Atlético are under a transfer embargo, he might have to go somewhere else when his contract ends in Italy in a few months, whether Simeone wants him or not.
When I meet Torres the following day, the prospect of leaving Atlético for a second time — the club he grew up supporting, the one where he made his debut at 17 and became the youngest captain at 19 — does not appear to concern him too greatly, largely because he is not considering the future as much as he did when he was younger, something which, he explains, contributed towards an acrimonious exit from Liverpool to Chelsea.
“Day by day — I have realised that in life you should look no further,” is one of the first things he says to me.
At Atlético, the love for him is unconditional because when he left, he moved abroad and the supporters understood why he had to do it. The destination of Liverpool was acceptable because Liverpool are not rivals and, as Torres later reminds me, “Liverpool beat Real Madrid in the 1981 European Cup final”, and Real Madrid are Atlético’s enemy.
At Liverpool, no foreign player in modern times has appeared to understand the club and the city as much as he did. As captain of Atlético, he wore an armband that bore the words ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. In his debut season at Anfield, he scored 33 goals in 46 games. In 2008, when Liverpool became the European Capital of Culture, his presence helped it feel like an even more cosmopolitan place.
That summer, an advert for his boot maker Nike included shots of a house in Anfield being painted in the red and yellow colours of Spain, along with the parking lines on the streets below. There were chip shops advertising all-day tapas, street markets selling paella pans and increased numbers of women at salsa lessons. The world famous Cavern Club became the Caverna Club. The final scene included a modestly dressed Torres walking his dog across green space on Everton Brow, retrieving a football for a group of lads involved in a game. Although injuries interrupted the next two and a half seasons, his name was sung even before Steven Gerrard’s in the pubs before matches. Torres was the working-class hero from another country who simply got it all.
But then he signed for Chelsea, a club whose injection of riches since 2003 had seen them win more than Liverpool, as a new rivalry developed.
Torres says that when he closes his eyes and forces himself, he can remember driving through the gates of Melwood for the last time as a Liverpool player. A gang had congregated, ceremoniously burning his shirt in front of television cameras. John Aldridge, the former Liverpool centre-forward, worked for radio and could not bring himself to utter Torres’s name thereafter, referring to him as “the other fella”. His debut for Chelsea came the following weekend and, as fate would have it, Liverpool were the opponents at Stamford Bridge.
Visiting supporters greeted him with a couple of banners with clear messages: “He who betrays will always walk alone’”and the slightly more obscure “Ya paid 50 mil 4 Margi Clarke”. Torres was hit by a cigarette lighter thrown from the south-east corner of the Shed End and, to complete his indignity, Liverpool won 1-0.
It was a surprise that Torres agreed to meet me. He does not do many interviews and has never before given his side of the story about his departure from Liverpool to Chelsea. The discussions with Torres’s representatives in order to secure time with him were, however, relatively straightforward. They appreciated this as an opportunity to set the record straight over some issues, particularly those that led to his £50million sale from Liverpool, a British record. I flew to Madrid sensing that not everything was quite as it seemed.
My brief was to be at the Cerro del Espino from noon, the day after Atlético’s easy win over Sociedad. Set in the town of Majadahonda, the training ground is 15 miles north-west of Madrid and higher up on the Castile plateau, so the air is cleaner. It is a wealthy area of plush shopping arcades and impressive- looking apartment complexes with gardens. In the distance, the snow-capped mountaintops of the Navacerrada are visible. As Torres finishes his training session, rich smells of fresh bread from a fancy bakery breeze across the car park.
First to arrive is Antonio Sanz, Torres’s long-term adviser. I first met him in the months after Torres joined Liverpool. Football agents tend to be viewed suspiciously but I liked Antonio because of his jolly nature and straight talking. On the day Torres left Liverpool, I spoke to him in the reception area at Melwood and detected some sadness that it had come to this. Before I could ask what was really happening, his mobile phone rang and by the time he had finished his conversation I had been directed somewhere else for another interview with Liverpool’s latest signing, Luis Suárez. It felt like a sliding-doors moment for Liverpool fans — what could have been had both been there at the same time…
Until any interview takes place, you never quite know what you are going to get. It is a relief when Antonio tells me that Torres had decided it was a good idea to do this one straight away. “Ask him anything you want, anything at all,” he says. “There are some things he would like to say.”
Torres has showered and changed into a jumper, jeans and trainers when he appears soon after. His film-star qualities remain: his thin freckled face and, though it is shorter than it was when he was at his best for Liverpool, there is the striking mop of blond hair. A firm handshake makes you trust him that bit more and, despite being shy, he makes consistent eye contact when introducing himself.
We are led into an anteroom next to a press canteen that serves empanadas and juices. There is a wooden table, two wooden chairs and one tiny window at the top of the dimly painted back wall. Jokes follow about it feeling like a set for interrogations and, though I’d like the conversation to be serious, I don’t want him to feel on the back foot straight away, so I open with a few questions he might find it easier to deal with.
I suggest to Torres that it must have been a big decision to leave Atlético for Liverpool in the first place. He leans on the table, joins his hands and begins to speak slowly in a deep, staid voice.
“Well, I had offers from different English teams a few years before I moved to Liverpool,” he says. “Manchester United were one of the clubs that came. But I never took the decision because it was very hard for me to leave Atlético. When I was a kid, I did not see further than Atlético. I wanted to get the chance to play for the first team, to score a few goals, stay there and win trophies. It was everything I dreamed about. I never thought I might leave.
“The situation was difficult for the club at that time [from the moment Torres made his debut in 2001]. We were in the second division and went back to the first division. There were a lot of financial problems. I’d never even played in Europe. So my aim became clear: to help the team qualify for Europe and after that maybe think about leaving.
“It would be the best for me but especially the best for the club, because I felt like they were building a team around me, which I don’t think is the way to become a stronger team. I was sure if I left, they could use the money to build a side the fans could be proud of, rather than just one individual. With time, I saw that this was the conclusion, so it was a relief that it worked this way. OK, it was good for me but it was especially good for Atlético.
“We qualified for Europe. Then Benítez called me. At least I was leaving the team in a good situation. Liverpool had played two European finals in three years. Benítez was there, Alonso and Reina. It was a club where I felt it would be quite easy for me to adapt. The relationship between the fans and the team was also something I was looking for. It was difficult to leave Atlético. But it was not difficult to choose Liverpool.”
“What a finisher he was, just a player that seemingly always made the right decision in the box.” 🇪🇸
“He was always in space, his movement was brilliant and his link up with Gerrard was phenomenal.” 🔴
— The Anfield Wrap (@TheAnfieldWrap) 20 March 2018
From his early teens, Torres was projected as the average boy from the average town who became a supremely talented footballer and did not change. That’s why supporters of Atlético love him so much. It was part of his appeal on the terraces of Anfield too.
Torres was raised in Fuenlabrada, half an hour by train from Madrid’s Atocha Station. I have been there before and it is unremarkable, featuring row upon row of identikit housing blocks. It could have been the outskirts of any major European city had the weather not given an idea of the location away. Fuenlabrada is classic Spanish suburbia: an arid place of tall concrete and shadows. The pace of life is slow. In a smoky room in Café Padilla, I was greeted by strange looks from old men who preferred to engage in their brandy glasses rather than conversation. One of them emerged from the miasma to ask me what I was doing there, and when I explained it was for research into Torres’s early life, the man with lips like bloodied hacked meat scoffed. He was a Real Madrid fan and took pride in informing me that Atlético were the second team in Fuenlabrada, like everywhere else near Madrid.
Torres lived in Parque Granada, the type of barrio where everyone knows everyone else’s business. His parents had moved there from Galicia when his father José was relocated as a policeman. During summer holidays, they would return to Spain’s rugged north-west coast and it was there that Torres met Olalla, his childhood sweetheart, to whom he is now married. They have three children named Leo, Nora and Elsa.
The Torres family resided in a flat on Calle de Alemania and his primary school was 150 yards away from the front door.
By the age of seven, Torres’s gift was obvious from the number of goals he scored in small-sided fútbol sala games, “sometimes 14 or 15,” remembers Jose Camacho, a family friend who owned the sports shop where Torres bought his first pair of football boots.
When Torres scored his hundredth goal for Atlético in February 2016, he gave the shirt to an 84-year-old man called Manuel Briñas. Torres first met Briñas 20 years earlier when he turned up for a trial on the gravel pitches of the Parque de las Cruces in Carabanchel, the prison town, more Atlético turf than Fuenlabrada. Briñas had been tasked with rebuilding Atlético’s youth system after it had been disbanded by Jesús Gil. Along with around 200 other kids, Torres played 11-a-side games split into 20-minute halves while the coaches gave marks out of 10. “Give him 10,” Briñas said when he saw Torres. “In fact, give him 10 and a bit.”
Torres was already an Atlético supporter. His induction to the club as a player consecrated the relationship. Offers later came from Real Madrid, and Pedro Calvo, his first coach, can remember approaches being made by sporting directors at Inter Milan and Arsenal. Financially, those moves would have been rewarding but Torres would not depart because he felt aligned to what he describes as the “sentimiento de rebeldía” or a sense of rebellion. His distaste for Atlético’s rivals does not lay hidden.
“It is difficult sharing a city with one of the most successful clubs in history when you support the other club,” he says. “When I beat Real Madrid with Liverpool, it was my first time, you know? With Atlético we could not beat them. Ever. The satisfaction of going to the Santiago Bernabéu and winning as a Liverpool player was huge.
“Then the next week they came to Anfield and we beat them for a second time, 4-0. I could not help myself, celebrating a goal in front of their fans. It was special. Beating them with Atlético [as he had done the weekend before our meeting] tastes different. There is a lot of pressure here in Madrid when you don’t beat Real for eight years, which happened in my first period here as a professional. I was the main man at Atlético and the one getting all of the blame.”
Michael Robinson, the forward who played for Liverpool in the 1980s before emerging as a famous football commentator on Spanish television, described Atlético as “the dog with fleas”. “You can’t help but love them,” he said. “Atlético can defend well, they can attack well. But they’re not particularly brilliant at anything other than giving everything they’ve got. They’re irresistible.”
Despite the pressure and despite his dubious record against Real before he left for Liverpool, Atlético supporters worship Torres for dragging them out of the second division after they had been relegated for the first time since 1934 in the season before his debut. They love him too because he left to master the world but never forgot them and was true on his promise to return one day.
I ask Torres what Atlético represents to him.
“Atlético means everything to me,” he says. “When I was a kid, I only watched Atlético games, none of the others. I was the kid going to the stand with my grandparents and my dad and brother. I would go by myself sometimes, getting the train and then the metro for one hour from Fuenlabrada. And then I would travel home by myself.
“My life and education has been Atlético. Everything that is happening now to me — the records, the games — it’s so emotional because it makes you look back and consider what has happened since the first day I joined. I remember being 10 years old and playing the final trial game where the club decided whether I was good enough for Atlético or not. The nerves! That was 20 years ago and I still feel it. It makes me smile. You can see me smiling now…
“From that day, I did not think any of this would happen. To score 100 goals for the club — it was too much to believe. It was so emotional, especially because of the reaction of the people. They know I am one of them. I was in the stands before and now I am lucky enough to be on the pitch. When I do not play for the club any more, I will be in the stands again.”
In 2007, a 6–0 defeat to Barcelona made Torres think about his future as an Atlético player because Barcelona was usually the one illustrious opponent Atlético found a way to beat. He was walking his two bulldogs in Madrid when the mobile phone in his pocket began to vibrate and a number he did not recognise flashed across the screen. He explains that he wouldn’t usually answer to an unknown caller but, realising the number was registered in England, he figured it might have been one of his close friends, Pepe Reina or Cesc Fàbregas. Instead, it was Rafael Benítez. Benítez had a list of five targets. They included Internazionale’s Julio Cruz, Palermo’s Amauri, Alberto Gilardino from AC Milan and Lisandro López of Porto. The recruitment of Torres was, however, given priority status.
“I cannot remember if he said, ‘Hi, it’s Rafa’ or, ‘Hi, this is Benítez,'” Torres recalls. The Liverpool manager was on holiday in Portugal a week after the Champions League final defeat to AC Milan, but his focus was already on recruiting a striker that would help propel his team towards the summit of the Premier League. “I was surprised but did not realise the dimension of what I was hearing till I hung up. Then I thought, Wow, this club that can get anybody in the world has rung me; they want me.”
Benítez had complained in interviews immediately after the final in Athens in 2007 that Tom Hicks and George Gillett were not helping him move fast enough to finalise deals for new signings. Torres was in Tahiti on holiday with Olalla when another call came several weeks later, instructing him to return to Europe immediately before flying to Merseyside.
“My medical took two days and nobody knew I was in the city,” he recalls. “The club arranged for me to stay in an apartment in the Albert Dock, supplying me with lots of DVDs and books about Liverpool’s history. I knew Liverpool was one of the great European clubs already. But it is not until you arrive that you realise really what the pressure is like — a good pressure. You are not just signing for a big football club; you are signing for a city. Millions of people across the world are watching you. I was the club’s record transfer.”
If Torres was feeling the weight of expectation, he did not show it. His first goal arrived in his second league game, a 1-1 draw with Chelsea. The way he glided past his marker and the confident execution of the finish made it seem as though a matador was at work, teasing the unfortunate beast, Tal Ben Haim.
Over the course of the next three seasons, he would score in all of the biggest games: against Manchester United, against Everton, against Arsenal and in the Champions League fixtures too.
In 142 appearances for the club, he registered 81 goals, breaking all sorts of records in the process. He reached a half century of goals quicker than Roger Hunt, and the crouching Torres became a familiar sight before kick-offs, lowering himself on to his haunches and staring impassively at the opposition before him, scanning the area and familiarising himself with the goal he was targeting. It made him look like an assassin, mentally placing his victims inside a trap before the attack.
By watching videos of Premier League matches, he familiarised himself with the opponents he would encounter and would adapt his game accordingly. Quickly, he became the player all of the boys wanted to be like and the player all of the girls wanted to be with. He darted across boxes and twisted past defenders. He became one of the greatest strikers to ever play for Liverpool.
“I know I am never going to feel the way I felt at Anfield again, even in my dreams,” he says. “Here at Atlético, I am home. It is where I grew up. I was a supporter in the stand, I joined the academy and then I became a player. It is normal that the people love me, because I am one of them. You can do wrong and they forgive you. At Liverpool, there was no reason for this relationship to develop the way it did. How many players have signed for Liverpool, they go there and play and pass the years but nobody remembers what they did? I was lucky. They did not have any reason to love me that way but they made me feel different to any other player.”
It helped Torres that Steven Gerrard was there, someone similarly talented, with similarly introverted personality traits. Someone, indeed, who had the same experience of captaining his local club from a very young age.
“I admire the player who gives the example by actions, not just with words. We had Carragher with the words, keeping everyone alive, which is so important. In the dressing room, he was the voice. And then on the pitch, he would support those words with actions.
“Stevie was different and more like me: leading by example. Stevie was always first in training; he could play the ball better than anyone. If he needed to kick someone, he did. When you see both of them working that way, you have to follow. If the main players give everything, you cannot give less than them. They set standards.
“Yes, Stevie in some ways is similar to me: more reserved and shy. On the pitch, it is different. There is an aura around him. You feel it as a team-mate. The opponent feels it because they know what is coming. He understood everything about me. I just needed to move into the space and the first thing he would try to do is find me. And he did, whether it was with a long or a short pass. Stevie was the player that completed my game. I will never find someone like him again.”
Gerrard, Torres says, gave him the confidence to display a creative expression that had lain dormant under the burden of home expectation in Madrid.
“In 2008, I went to the Ballon d’Or gala in Switzerland. Messi won, Ronaldo came second and I came third. I could not believe I was nominated. Wow, a private jet — I was in shock. Stevie kept telling me, “Don’t worry, you will win it for sure.” He told me that like he really thought it. I thought he was crazy! I never once thought I’d be good enough to get invited to a gala like this. His words expressed how he felt about me at the club and the performance levels I was reaching with the help of the support. He told me I could be the best in the world and I realised this is the feeling everybody in Liverpool had about me. They made me feel anything was possible, that everything was real.”
The narrative of Torres’s first two seasons at Liverpool is well documented. This was a player who came, who scored, who was adored by the Kop. Liverpool did not win the league title but they came closer than they had in any of the previous 19 years. There were strong performances in the Champions League as well.
Torres relished life in Woolton, where he would go out for meals and be able to shop without interference. People were respectful enough to give him space. Shouting his name and waving was enough. Merseyside allowed him space to breathe and lead a relatively normal life, one that was not possible in Madrid, where it was difficult to know who to trust because everyone wanted a piece of him, where he wasn’t playing for the strongest team and 80 per cent of the people were Real fans.
The story of his final 18 months at Anfield, however, is blurred. There is an accepted version of events, especially of the last few weeks, which is that Torres asked the club to consider an offer from Chelsea before verbal and written requests forced it through. When I mention this to Torres, the shutters slowly begin to come down but then the entire window of the period is exposed for all to see, according to his memories.
He begins by telling me he cannot compare the Liverpool he joined in 2007 to the one he left three-and-a-half years later. Torres has previously weighed all of his answers carefully. From herein, probing is unnecessary. He speaks without much interruption.
“When I decided to move to Liverpool, it was because I was sure Liverpool was very close to becoming the best team in Europe,” he says. “But the situation changed completely…”
He pauses for reflection, then continues: “At times, I believe we were the best team in Europe. We were not lucky enough to win the Premier League, though we were so close. We also lost in a Champions League semi-final. I think the team was great. You can see that by the players. One moved to Real Madrid [Xabi Alonso] and another to Barcelona [Javier Mascherano], and these players are still playing at the highest level.
“We had a team to dream about but one that still needed building. The spine was there. Providing we kept that, I knew we could compete with anyone: Reina, Carragher, Agger, Skrtel, Alonso, Mascherano, Gerrard and then me. It was strong, very powerful. We were difficult to beat and nobody wanted to play against us. We were not far away from being champions of England and champions of Europe. But we needed to keep the team.
“Everything changed when the owners started talking about selling. The mindset of the club went in a different direction. Alonso was sold, Mascherano was sold, Benítez went too. Not all of the money went into new players. The club was saying, ‘We still want to be the best and we want to win’ but doing the opposite.”
He says that Atlético has always been his club.
“I left my club to win,” he continues. “By the time I left Liverpool, when everybody was leaving, I did not have the feeling that I was going to win there. It was hard because I had been so happy. I’d never felt happier than during my time at Liverpool. But then I felt betrayed. That’s the truth.”
Torres admits he is not blameless in what happened. And yet he ended up taking ‘máximo responsabilidad’ for the outcome.
Torres reveals that in July 2010, he was aware of interest from Chelsea and Manchester City. He explains that late that month he met with Christian Purslow, Liverpool’s managing director, to discuss his concerns about the direction the club was moving in.
The season before, Liverpool had finished seventh under Rafael Benítez, which contributed towards his leaving. Purslow was hired by Tom Hicks and George Gillett in 2009 in the aftermath of Rick Parry’s departure, with a priority of renegotiating the £350million loan the club had outstanding with Royal Bank of Scotland and to assume overall management of the club until a new permanent chief executive could be appointed.
Purslow had emerged from Cambridge with a degree in modern and medieval languages. A career in investment banking followed.
“Benítez was not there: the club sacked him. I finished the World Cup and I talked with Purslow on holiday. He came with Roy Hodgson, who was keen to speak to me. I told them my view on what was happening at the club: that we were so close to winning and now good players were leaving. What was our future?
“Purslow explained that Liverpool were in the process of being sold to new owners and that nobody could leave in the summer because the club had a higher value with the players they had at that time. ‘We cannot sell you,’ he told me. I told them we would not win without investment and that it worried me we’d fall behind very quickly. I explained that when I joined the club, the mood was totally different and that Benítez’s ambition had taken me to Liverpool. Purslow told me that nobody would leave but as soon as the club was sold he would speak to the new owner and try to find a solution. If I wanted to leave then, I could.
“Nobody ever said to me, ‘We want you to stay and be like Stevie.’ The message was: ‘We’ll sell the club and you can leave.’ That means to me the people running the club did not really care about Liverpool, only themselves. They wanted to save themselves. And then Mascherano was sold anyway.”
Torres understands that Hodgson was appointed into a difficult position, one where maybe even he did not appreciate the full facts of the bleak outlook at Liverpool. Torres says he liked Hodgson even though on the outside it may have seemed their relationship was not close.
“It was a pity because Hodgson was a great coach and a great guy,” Torres says. “They didn’t let him work. They brought in all these Australian people [a new medical team] who controlled everything: who could play, who could not. He wasn’t able to use the players the way he wanted. From that pre-season to the January when I left, it was a nightmare. Not just for me but for everybody, for Hodgson too. He was not allowed to work properly — the situation was more difficult for him than it was for anyone else. Everything was a mess. We were not good enough. In the middle of that, they finally sold the club.”
Though he realises Liverpool was rotting from the head, Torres recognises that Hicks’s and Gillett’s money took him to Liverpool in the first place. He had no relationship with either of them.
“I don’t think it’s so important the owners are in England, in Liverpool,” he says. “What I think is important is that they put someone in charge who is in Liverpool — the right person who understands what Liverpool means. I am sure most owners have many businesses. The only thing they have to do in football is give the money that you need to compete with others. Whatever name you want — the president or the sporting director — they need to understand Liverpool, the feelings. He has to listen to the fans and listen to the players and do a job that is up to the level of the club, meeting the standards that have been set through history.
“You need someone there who understands what Liverpool is, because for the owners it is just a business and without someone telling them the right information it will fail. OK, if they are in Liverpool it will help them but if they are not, put someone in charge who is there and understands football and the club.”
Boston-based investment firm New England Sports Ventures (later to become Fenway Sports Group) acquired Liverpool in a move that Hicks described as “an epic swindle”. Both Martin Broughton, the chairman, and Purslow stepped down from their roles at that point, though Purslow remained as an adviser for a while longer. Liverpool would be structured in a different way, with a sporting director taking on some of Purslow’s responsibilities: primarily dealing with recruitment and sales. Damien Comolli, a Frenchman, was appointed to the role, having achieved varied success at Tottenham Hotspur before.
“I went to talk with Comolli and told him about my concerns and what had happened. He said the same as Purslow: ‘No, no, you cannot leave because we do not have any other players to play.’ Again, he was not telling me, ‘You cannot leave because we need you for the project.’ It was, ‘OK, we will find someone else, then maybe you can leave.’ It said to me that they did not want to keep me, really. They wanted to find someone else. But first they wanted to wait until the summer.
“Comolli told me Liverpool were going to buy Luis Suárez but because Suárez was not a goalscorer I needed to stay until they found one. ‘Suárez is the player to play behind; he is not going to score too many goals,’ was the message. You can see they signed Suárez thinking he could not score goals…”
Torres affords a light smile recalling this memory, insisting that history has since proven that Suárez deserves to be considered one of the game’s best modern strikers alongside Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
“Comolli told me that the new owners [FSG], they had an idea of how to spend their investment. They wanted to bring in young players, to build something new. I was thinking to myself, This takes time to work. It takes two, three, four, maybe even 10 years. I didn’t have that time. I was 27 years old. I did not have the time to wait. I wanted to win. Here we are five years later and they are still trying to build — around the same position in the league as when I left.”
With Liverpool mid table, FSG’s next big decision was to sack Hodgson at the start of January 2011 and replace him with Kenny Dalglish until the end of the season. A reflection of Hodgson’s shattered relationship with Liverpool’s supporters by the end was the sound of the “Hodgson for England” chants from the away end in a game at Blackburn Rovers. His reign proved to be the shortest of any permanent Liverpool manager in the club’s history.
Dalglish, meanwhile, was viewed as the greatest Liverpool player. He had also led Liverpool to their last league title nearly 21 years earlier. He is someone whose status on Merseyside is at a papal level.
Torres liked Dalglish and after his appointment spoke to him about his disappointing conversations with Purslow and Comolli. At one meeting, Torres insists he did not request to leave but stressed if Liverpool were thinking about following a different path, one where investment in proven quality was not imminent “because we needed it”, it might be worth considering financially acceptable offers for him and allowing Liverpool to build with the money accrued.
In the week that followed, as Liverpool negotiated privately with Chelsea and as they inched closer to an agreement that would make Torres the subject of the highest transfer deal in English history, stories began to circulate in the press claiming that Torres had ‘verbally’ requested a transfer. Torres believes this came from a leak at the club, a deliberate attempt to sully his name before the conclusion of the inevitable: making him take “maximum responsibility” for the transfer when really the club were happy to make it happen.
“When Chelsea made their first offer before the game at Wolverhampton, I spoke with Dalglish and Steve Clarke [the assistant manager]. I think Comolli wanted to be at the meeting but I told them I only wanted to speak with the coaches. Again, I told Dalglish and Clarke that I only left my club to win and now we were so far away from winning. I told them I felt as though I’d been lied to. Despite telling me they would not sell the good players, Mascherano was sold. I told them that the Chelsea offer was a good one and it would allow me to keep improving and the club would receive a huge financial reward. Dalglish told me that he did not want me to leave — he was the only one. ‘I need you here,’ he said, although he never spoke about his reasons, so they may have been the same as Comolli’s.
“Before leaving the room, I thought we had an understanding. It might have been a difficult conversation but there was respect on both sides. It was no pasa nada [no problem]. Dalglish told me he’d always be grateful for what I’d done for Liverpool and that hopefully I’d stay.
“Whether I stayed or left, the idea was to continue as normal. I wanted to do everything the right way. I scored twice at Wolverhampton, then played OK against Fulham three days later at Anfield. Dalglish had told me he did not want me to leave but at the same time I knew Liverpool were negotiating with Chelsea, so maybe this was not the truth.
“What I did not expect was what they did with the media, changing the way it looked. They tried to show that I was the guilty one, el único [the only one]. I’d gone face to face with Dalglish to explain the situation so that everything was clear. I did not use my agent. He knew how I felt: I wanted to win but at Liverpool it did not seem as though that was possible for at least a few years. And you can see what happened in the few years after — I was not wrong.
“I told him City had a great team, United were still winning things, then there was Chelsea as usual and Tottenham. We were so far from them. I told him about my conversations with Purslow in the summer and that I stayed then because I did not want to be responsible for Liverpool not being sold.
“I explained to him that nobody ever wanted me to stay for the right reasons — reasons only related to football. I told him Comolli had told me I could leave at the end of the season. He was not interested in me staying for ever. I told Dalglish I had the chance to leave then — in January — and I did not know whether Chelsea, City or Bayern Munich would come again. I knew the season was not going to be very good — we had been in the bottom half of the table. Who knows what is going to happen? I had the chance to go and it was a great offer for the club also. But if you want me to stay for ever, tell me that. If Liverpool were going to build a great team again, I wanted to stay, there would be no reason to leave, though I did not think this was going to happen, because I did not believe in Comolli’s ideas. I wasn’t sure whether he really cared about Liverpool at all.”
By selling Torres, Comolli would potentially have more money to play with, more money to exert influence on the club in his first few months in the job. It is Dalglish whom Torres feels most let down by, though.
“My respect for him was huge. I knew that Dalglish was one of the best players in the history of the club, that everyone loved him. But I think he had the power to change the situation. I don’t know why he didn’t do so. If he had asked for money for players, I think they’d have given it to him. If he had insisted to the owners that I stay, then I would have stayed. He came and the team started playing better. I started scoring more goals. The way he wanted to play was much better for the players we had. Steve Clarke was a fantastic coach and he did a great job too.
“Stories appeared in the press about me demanding to leave, though. This made it difficult for me to stay and to trust the people at Liverpool. Someone must have told them. Because I did not.”
I remind Torres that a similar thing happened with Javier Mascherano when he left for Barcelona at the end of the previous August. After a man-of-the-match performance against Arsenal on the opening day of the season, it was reported that he had refused to play against Manchester City. I wondered whether Liverpool were in the business of discrediting a departing player’s name so the club looked better and the parting of ways was made more acceptable to supporters.
“The stories that appeared in the press changed the view of everybody including myself. It was not the truth. The truth was that I moved from my home to a club that was ready to win. When I left, there was not a single piece of the winning culture left.
“What’s so hard for me is that I felt the relationship between myself and the club was really close. That’s why I tried to go and talk to them straight. I will say this again: I did not use my agent. I went first to Purslow, then to Comolli and after to Dalglish — all face-to-face. I tried to explain to each one of them why I left Atlético to go to Liverpool in the first place. I tried to explain that you couldn’t expect to win if you sold your best players. Nobody could give me a straight answer, a football answer.
“It looked like I wanted to leave for Chelsea and I did not love Liverpool any more. It looked like I did not want to train and play and that’s why I asked for a transfer request. It was presented as if I was a traitor. It was not like this in the discussion. Liverpool could not admit they were doing something wrong with the whole team. They had to find a guilty one.”
Liverpool supporters saw his choice to join Chelsea as treason. Torres viewed it as his only option.
“I feel sorry for the fans, because they are always going to love Liverpool. The club is bigger than any player. That’s why it was so hard to decide to leave and why it was so hard to see the facts getting twisted, for everything to be pointed at me. I can understand the supporters, because if I read everything that was in the media and believed it, I would feel the same way. But I will tell you again: nothing will ever change my feelings for Liverpool, for the fans and for the city. From day one until the last, they were fantastic towards me.”
There is a sense from Torres that the situation either got out of control very quickly or someone at Liverpool achieved what they wanted in the end. While Dalglish had been out of front-line football for longer than a decade and was landed in a situation that was not of his making, FSG, whose principal owner is John W. Henry, had no previous experience in dealing with such political transfers. FSG have always admitted to taking council from mysterious-sounding ‘pre-eminent advisers’.
During the long-running battle between Mill Financial, former owner George Gillett and Royal Bank of Scotland, it was revealed in 2016 from a New York courtroom that back in 2010 when Mill were competing with FSG to buy the club, both Torres and Pepe Reina were viewed by FSG as being “probably beyond their primes”.
“John Henry was the last person I spoke to and he was great to me, I cannot say anything bad,” Torres says. “He told me he did not want me to leave. If I did want to leave, he told me that the price had to be very high. I told him that I did not want to talk about numbers; that was for him to decide and I would respect whatever decision he came to.”
The discussion with Steven Gerrard about the situation was the one he dreaded most.
“I went to him before speaking with Dalglish. We were in the dressing room at Melwood alone, sitting together. I explained there had been an offer from Chelsea and that the team was not going to be good in the years to come. I asked him what he thought I should do. Stevie told me not to go, never to leave Liverpool. But he realised too I had to do what was best for me; he understood that my situation and his were different. These were words from the best captain.
“I know that Stevie was devastated when I left. I was as well, in some ways. I remember the flight from Liverpool to London. I did not know what to feel. I was not happy, I was not angry; I was empty. I was on a helicopter and it was getting dark, flying over Liverpool below. I began to feel sad. I was so happy there, so, so happy…
“After a few weeks, I went back to Liverpool to get my stuff. My son was born in Liverpool. Usually, the house would be busy and he’d be greeting me at the door. But the house was silent. That was hard too.”
Torres struggles to describe his emotions when he made his debut for Chelsea the following weekend against Liverpool. He performed that day as if he did not want to be there.
“To play against Liverpool was never something I liked,” he admits. “There were so many memories and feelings. The reaction of the fans was something I expected but it was still too much for me. I did not react in a good way. Again, it was so, so hard.”
His mind drifts to a game at Anfield in 2014 when victory for Liverpool would have put them two more wins away from the club’s first league title in 24 years. Steven Gerrard slipped, enabling Demba Ba to score Chelsea’s opener, and in injury time Torres — sent on as a substitute — raced through on goal.
He could have made it 2–0 but elected to pass to Willian. During the course of this interview, it is the only question he dodges: the one where I suggest it seems as though he could not contemplate scoring, that he couldn’t bear to stop Liverpool achieving a feat he never accomplished with them.
“That was the toughest day,” he prefers to say. “I felt so sorry for Stevie and for Liverpool. [They] were so close and really deserved to win the league. If they had won, I think Liverpool would have created history. What a moment for the city. It was so hard seeing the people in the stands. I still feel the same way for them. No matter what has happened, I still love them. I know some of them are still angry but it will not change how I feel for them. Atlético is my club but I still support Liverpool and I want them to win every game, every trophy.”
He explains that he has wished for the platform to speak freely about Liverpool for some time. Being a Chelsea player made that impossible.
“Liverpool is unique. It is different to Atlético, for example,” he continues. “I’m from here and I love Atlético because my heart is here. But as a club, at Liverpool I felt at home even though I was not from there. The relationship between the workers, the people in the offices, the people around the team and the fans – it is special.
“I never felt at Chelsea or even at Atlético the same way I did at Liverpool. At Liverpool, they made me feel like a king. I really felt like I could do anything. I remember playing my first game at Anfield. Pepe [Reina] came and said, ‘Look at the atmosphere – this is where you need to be. You do not get this at Atlético.’ After the game, I told Pepe that I thought I could score in every single game at Anfield. As soon as I stepped on to the pitch: goals. I was flying. Not only because I was the best age to play football but also because of the atmosphere around the club. It was magic.”
Torres admits he reacts better when the energy towards him is positive. At Liverpool, he felt adoration. At Chelsea, he felt the need to justify a huge price tag while not being fully fit. Remorse about the manner of his departure from Liverpool lingered. From being arguably the deadliest striker on the planet for Liverpool, he was never able to reach the same level. Behind the eyes he instead appeared dead.
“Right now I do not think that winning trophies is more important than being happy. I have realised that winning the Champions League [as he did with Chelsea in 2012], it does not change how you feel every day. I have realised the target should not be the main thing in your life; taking life day by day is key.
“When I was at Chelsea, I did not start well for a few reasons. We won almost everything I wanted to win. But maybe that was not enough for me. I was missing playing with Stevie and I missed playing for Liverpool. I thought a lot about the games with the team we had, fighting together. It really means something to me. It is something I found again at Atlético: a team together. Maybe we don’t have huge names but we are a team that competes and enjoys every victory. It does not matter who scores the goal, it does not matter if at the end we cannot win, because at least we are doing something with our hearts.”
I suggest to Torres that it suits him to play for a club where there is a common cause, one that is not viewed as a representative of an establishment, like Real Madrid or, perhaps, Chelsea because they are from London.
“It is the most difficult thing in life: to choose the right moment at the right time to be in the right place,” he says. “If you can find a club that suits you in everything, then it’s going to be great, but getting there is a big challenge. You don’t really know a club until you are there. And then it’s too late to go back.”
This prompts me to come out and ask him: “Fernando, do you regret moving to Chelsea?”
“No, because I won,” he insists. “That is what I wanted at that time. I had not won anything before, only promotion with Atlético and nothing with Liverpool despite a promising situation. The reason to move was to win trophies. And I did. It is silly to regret something you wanted. But maybe you realise it does not bring you contentment.”
Then he offers a different strand of thought.
“There are some questions journalists don’t ask me in interviews,” he continues. “I see Stevie leaving to go to the MLS — it was his decision. I thought, how great would it have been for Stevie to finish his career at Liverpool, like Totti at Roma? Maybe I should have done that here at Atlético. From the outside, you become a player to admire forever. Everyone will always remember you as the one that stayed. Sometimes I think I should never have moved from Atlético — never. Maybe the team would have got better with me there, maybe they would still have won the trophies they won when I was not around. Now I would be nearly 32 — all my career at one club, winning trophies and having the respect of everyone. What could be better?
“But then I think I would never change my time in Liverpool. I needed to move. I found something great, special and different. It was my happiest time as a player. To feel the love of a community where you haven’t grown up — it is hard for me to describe what this meant to me.
“I was hungry, though. I wanted trophies. When you are younger, many people are motivated by success. This was me at that moment: the next step was winning. I wanted it to be at Liverpool. But the circumstances changed.
“Chelsea was not good from the beginning, though. I did not find a team that suited me on the pitch. [There was a] good organisation [off it] but the different personality [of the team] was not for me, even though I got what I wanted [by winning trophies].
“I tried in Italy with AC Milan but that was not for me either. Then I had the chance to come back to Atlético — to really enjoy every day even if I was not playing on a regular basis like I used to. I am enjoying what I’m doing. And that is more important.”
Having returned to Anfield for a charity game in honour of Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher in 2015, the crowd cheered when Torres’s name was read out across the public address system, suggesting time has healed some old wounds.
The song broke out: “His armband proved he was a Red, Torres, Torres / You’ll Never Walk Alone it read, Torres, Torres / We bought the lad from sunny Spain / He gets the ball and scores again, Fernando Torres, Liverpool’s Number 9!”
“Maybe this was the happiest moment of the last five years for me,” he considers, a smile stretching across his face. “In my last game there with Chelsea, I was booed. It was depressing. To go and hear my song again, to see the reaction of the fans — it makes me feel I am at peace now. I know I broke their hearts and in some way my heart was also broken. To have my last memory of Anfield as this one…I am so, so lucky.”
Torres is intelligent, introspective, sensitive and somewhat repentant. He queries the choices he has made. He does it here frequently without the need for questions. When listening to his words, there might appear to be an ambiguity to some of his conclusions. At the very end of our discussion, he makes a point of revisiting one particular subject without request.
“In my last full season with Liverpool, I had a problem in my knee,” he reveals. “It stopped me playing and training at my best. I wanted to play in the World Cup and I was on crutches two months before the tournament started. I was so desperate, and I made it into the squad. But I was not playing well, because I could not bend my knee. Then I got injured again in the final and if you look at the pictures, you can see the pain.
“For a long time after that, I did not feel the same. Sometimes you want something so much you do not make the right decisions. I became a world champion but was it worth it? I don’t know.
“Was it the right decision to think about moving away from Liverpool to Chelsea, where the chance to win trophies was greater at that time? I don’t know.”
It is then you realise that only by looking into his dark, inky eyes can the truth really be revealed.
© Simon Hughes 2017. Extracted from Ring of Fire: Liverpool FC into the 21st Century – The Players’ Stories by Simon Hughes, published by Bantam Press. Out in paperback tomorrow (Thursday, April 20). Order now.
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