No one has ever broken Liverpool hearts quite the same way Fernando Torres did.
In January 2011, Liverpool fans around the world were glued to their phones, their computer desktops or their television screens. The news filtered through, slowly at first, and then all of a sudden, like a punch in the gut.
The fear that had been festering for months was finally realized: Fernando Torres wanted out.
It wasn’t just Fernando Torres the footballer who wanted out, but it was also Fernando Torres the Kop’s golden kid, the idol from Madrid whom Liverpool fans had lauded as one of their own, the Fernando Torres whom fans loved so ferociously with an adoration that could never again be matched – not even for a certain Uruguayan genius. That Fernando Torres wanted out. There were tears, flames and anger as he packed his bags and left for that lot in blue. Things turned nasty and cruel. And it was, as the saying goes, that the ones we love the most always hurt us the most.
Fast forward 5 years and 56 Torres goals later (he scored 81 for Liverpool in three years), Fernando is finally back home in the red and white of Atletico Madrid – a homecoming which followed years of wilderness in London and Milan. One of the world’s best strikers had been reduced to a joke and a punchline. But here, at the Vicente Calderon, he is finally back at his “only home”, as he calls it. Forty-five thousand people turned up to welcome El-Nino and he, visibly moved, said to the crowd: “One day you will have to tell me what I have done to deserve this.”
What has he done, indeed, to make the fans love him so?
For Atletico fans, it is obvious. He is their child from Fuenlabrada, who captained their team at nineteen, and became the hope that carried them back to the First Division. His grandfather took him to the Calderon since he was a little boy. He loves them as much as they love him. Probably more.
But for Liverpool fans?
We have tried and tried to answer that question for years. Why Fernando Torres?
Time has shown us that there is no right answer.
Or rather there isn’t one specific answer which can possibly encapsulate the almost Shakespearean love affair which started in 2007, when a 23-year old Torres raced to meet a Steven Gerrard cross, slotted the ball into the bottom left-hand corner of the Chelsea goal, and slid across the Anfield grass to bask in the adoration from The Kop.
From the moment his captain armband fell off in San Sebastian to reveal the message ‘We’ll Never Walk Alone’, Torres’ next destination was sealed. It wasn’t going to be Arsenal or Manchester United. It was going to be Liverpool. He said later in his autobiography: “Maybe that was the day I took my first step towards Anfield, or maybe it was because I already shared things with Liverpool. I identify with the values that define the club: hard work, struggle, humility, sacrifice, effort, tenacity, commitment, togetherness, unity, faith, the permanent desire to improve, to overcome all obstacles.”
Quite simply, Fernando Torres just fit.
As football fans, we live tethering between hope and realism, forever trying to balance the two. Despite our nagging pessimism, we allowed ourselves to love Torres not just because he was glorious in red, but because we believed he loved us in return; the raised hand at Old Trafford, him draped in a Liverpool scarf at the World Cup final, and everything else. When he walked away, we told ourselves: ‘never again’. Footballers are rich billionaires in glass houses once more and the leaving of the likes of Luis Suarez and Raheem Sterling or even Philippe Coutinho never quite cut the way Torres’ did.
Many Liverpool fans’ attitude towards Torres has softened over the years. It helped that he was terrible at Chelsea, and that he never felt “at peace with himself” until he heard The Kop sang his name again. We almost felt proud when he scored in the 38th second against Barcelona and knelt down to kiss the Calderon turf….
Torres once explained the difference between being an Atletico Madrid fan and being a Real Madrid fan: “Kids might say: ‘Why should we be Atletico fans when they always lose and Madrid fans are always so happy?’ But Madrid fans aren’t always happy. Being an Atletico fan makes you suffer but it makes you stronger too. Our fans are prisoners of a feeling; theirs are prisoners of results.”
Atletico Madrid can still turn back time with their Kid, but Liverpool never will.
For a few years, we were, despite of ourselves, prisoners of a feeling when Fernando Torres was concerned.
And then he departed the building, leaving it just a little bit emptier than it was before.