Fernando Torres: ‘I felt like I could fly at Liverpool. I was always competing against that version of me’

The answer is immediate, shaped by contrasting experiences and coloured by a light shade of sorrow. Fernando Torres, in a dapper navy suit, breathes in deeply before letting his vulnerability flow as he is questioned about the ultimate lesson extracted from his 18-year professional career.

“When we start playing football, we are always thinking about trophies, which looks like it is the most important thing,” he tells The Independent in an emotionally charged interview.

“You want to be a star, you want to win everything, you obsess about becoming one of the best in the world. But when you finish your career and football is gone, what you have is your memories, your special feelings. Remembering how many friendships you made, the relationships built over all the years, the sharing of the joy of goals, the love you felt from the fans… These are the most important things, not trophies. The respect of everybody around football, especially respect from the supporters of the teams I played for, means more to me now.”

Torres has lifted the grandest prize at club level – the Champions League – and “touched glory” with Spain, whose two European Championship crowns in 2008 and 2012 were sandwiched by the World Cup win in South Africa. He has two gold Europa League medals, a gluttony of silverware picked up at youth level with the national team and a host of individual awards.

None of them hold the pride of place of a plate he has, bearing his grandfather’s name – Eulalio – and the Atletico Madrid badge. To properly understand El Nino, The Kid, is to deconstruct the internal war of wanting to maximise his talents, while also viewing the game through a very sentimental lens.

Eulalio swayed a young Torres, whose father’s Galician roots had drawn him to Deportivo La Coruna, to commit to Atleti. He was nine when he first visited the Vicente Calderon and a year later, he had earned a trial at the club after scoring 55 goals in his debut season with Rayo 13.

At the Madrid barrio of Carabanchel’s Parque de las Cruces, a short journey from the Calderon – Torres was one of 200 kids trying to make an impression on the gravel pitches in an 11-a-side game of 20-minute halves. Atleti youth coach Manuel Briñas asked his colleague Manolo Rangel, “what grade should we give the blonde kid with the freckles?,” and the response was “give him an 11.”

Torres talks about having “the most fun” while at the club’s academy, but that sharply switched to him becoming Rojiblancos’ great hope. Atletico were suffering their “two years in hell” in the second division when he made his professional debut aged 17. At 19, he was club captain. And before turning to an adult, he was practically Atleti – the defining symbol of the institution.

It was initially electrifying – a buzz to mean so much to a club he loved so much – but it naturally evolved into an exacting experience. “I really enjoyed that the beginning, because I was not I didn’t know that I was assuming all the responsibility, I was just playing football,” Torres says. “I was bouncing living my dream, playing with my team and in stadiums in front of my people. I was so happy.

“Then I realised that I was handling a lot of responsibility and it was all on me and it was a lot – not just on the pitch. There were things I was doing for the club I love, but there was nothing for me – I had to start thinking about myself too. That is when I said it wasn’t working out and I had to leave. It was good for Atleti too, they could build on more than just one player. It was definitely one of the most difficult periods of my career, such a hard decision and scary, but it was right.”

Torres was too good for Atleti and stayed far longer than he should have out of loyalty: he concedes he thought like a fan. As is a central theme of his career, the sentimentality jarred with reality and the desire to fully discover his potential.

On 4 July 2007, Torres became Liverpool’s record signing at the time in a £20 million deal on a six-year contract. He would morph into the best No.9 in the world at Anfield, directly contributing 97 goals in 142 appearances.

“Liverpool was magic, everything,” he says. “I felt really welcomed from the first day. I felt like I was in a new family, really from every single person – the staff, the players and obviously the supporters, our relationship was great.

“I used to think that I could fly. I could do everything I wanted to on the pitch. It was incredible. I felt a release because I had everything I needed to be happy. Steven Gerrard, pulling on the shirt of such a huge club, the football we played, I didn’t yet have problems with injuries. I was on top of the world.”

Torres won hearts and minds on Merseyside, a man from Fuenlabrada that instantly connected and was stitched from the same working-class fabric. As he revealed in El Nino: My Story. “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.”

But… there were no trophies. And worse, he could foresee a period of depreciation for Liverpool. The best players were reduced to profit makers and the forward represented the biggest opportunity in this regard.

Again, he’d have to consider his affinity for a club against his career arc. “It was so difficult and really hard because we had a really good team,” Torres details about watching Rafael Benitez’s stellar side being shredded as he started considering his departure.

“I really felt pride in Liverpool, but then you start selling the biggest players – Mascherano, Xabi Alonso  even Rafa Benitez was sacked. And then the owners were selling the club. A lot of people were looking out for their own interests and not the club. So many times, we spoke and I said ‘we have everything here. We need to keep the team and add a few players.’ We were so close to being the best in England and Europe. But when I decided to leave, it was because everything I knew about Liverpool was lost.

“No ambition, no Xabi, no Mascherano, no Benitez, no project… Nothing! So I needed to think about myself because I left Atletico, which was my home, to win trophies. Because at that time, I still thought that the winning trophies was the most important thing. And Chelsea were offering me the chance to have trophies every year. And this is what I wanted at that age.”

On 31 January 2011, Torres traded Anfield for Stamford Bridge in a £50m deal that scorched his relationship with Liverpool fans. The club had spun a one-sided story about the transfer: the striker was desperate to leave and was forcing his way out, declining to reference their broken promises and the fact that apart from Gerrard, no-one in power seriously spelled out that they wanted him to stay.

The move was emotionally taxing, and on a professional level, would lead to a permanent struggle of trying to still be the Liverpool version of Fernando Torres, which is explored in his new Amazon Prime Documentary, The Last Symbol.

“A hundred percent it was draining,” he says. “I was sure that I still could be a top player, but I couldn’t find the consistency in my game.

“Everybody, or I think what the media shows, is my time in Chelsea was always a low. I don’t think it’s true, there were also a few highs. The relationship I had with Chelsea fans was huge and maybe it was one of the the main things to keep me motivated, because they were always waiting for something for me. I wanted to show them the best me.

“They showed me their appreciation for winning the trophies. I played maybe some periods of really good football, but not every weekend, like ay Liverpool. And in that period, I start playing against myself – I started playing against Fernando Torres from Liverpool. And that’s very difficult to to compete with that because I was not mentally the same, the situation was completely different, the football was different.

“I really believed I could still play at the highest level, which I showed when I went to Atleti again. I think my time at Chelsea was with ups and downs, not just the low moments. I explain it very well in the documentary.”

For an age, Torres wondered if Liverpool supporters would ever embrace him again. It nagged and gnawed at him that a relationship which was so crucial to him had been so catastrophically damaged. In March 2015, he returned to Anfield for Liverpool FC Foundation’s All Star charity game.

At the onset of the second half, a song that had not been heard at Anfield for more than four years and was never expected to be chorused again filled the terraces.

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 No 9!

“Yes, it was a charity match but it was one of the most important games I played in my career because the Liverpool fans forgave me,” he admits. “And I was so scared before the game for months, because I didn’t know the reaction they would have. I was not a hundred percent sure.

“I had the chance the previous week to explain why I left, my reality and my truth. And when I went out on the pitch that day, everybody stood up and clapped for me. Giving me that welcome was huge because it was very painful, everything about leaving and then coming back to Anfield as an opponent and being booed.

“It was really, really hard. Really painful. I still loved them and it was difficult to take it. But that day, I was at peace again. I was able to be close to the fans again, to feel their warmth. It made me so happy. Before, you asked me about experiences versus trophies and this day was a good one to show the importance of feeling a connection. I want to go to Anfield when it is possible again to watch a game because I love the club.

“I follow all their matches on TV. They finally won the league after 30 years and I was so happy for Liverpool. I celebrated when they won the Champions League, but I know what the Premier League means for the fans and they really deserved to have that joy.

“The best thing is that with the manager, with the players they have, with the mentality, with the power of Anfield, Liverpool will become the team with the most English titles again very soon.”

After Stamford Bridge, an uninspiring spell at AC Milan followed, before a return to Atleti and then a change of lifestyle with Sagan Tosu in Japan.

“I left Chelsea thinking that AC Milan was a big challenge, to help them become one of the best teams Europe again, but it didn’t work. I was thinking to move to America, but Atleti came and rescued me with a chance to play at my home again. Then I decided to move to Japan so my family could experience a completely different culture, different country, different language. And it was a really nice experience in a personal way.”

And what next? “I’m 36. I’m still young. Right now I only want to enjoy my family. Enjoy my time. I have free the weekends now for the first period since I was a child.

“I have to study and I’m doing my coaching badges to become a manager. Let’s see if I do that.

“When you are in the middle of your career, it’s like you are driving others 300 miles per hour. Everything goes so quick and you don’t really enjoy things, you are not aware of the reality. You are living inside your bubble.

“Now that playing is over, I can think about all that happened – the good and the bad. I’m very proud for everything I did in football. I made many mistakes, but I learned from them.

“I give out a lot of credit to the people who have been close to me since I was 17 when I played my first game as a professional. They still are by my side. I became a good player because I had good people around me. That’s a big thing for youngsters to know. And also, that football is more than trophies.”

Fernando Torres: The Last Symbol will launches exclusively on Prime Video in Spain and the UK on Friday, 18th September.

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