There are many reasons for a footballer to rejoin a former club. There is ‘the returning legend’, otherwise known as ‘the Thierry Henry’ or ‘the Robbie Fowler’, whereby a player heads back to the side where he made his name for a career swansong. There is ‘the local boy done good’, or ‘the Carlos Tevez’, whereby a player, not yet in his retirement phase, returns to his first love after successful spells elsewhere. There is the Cesc Fabregas-inspired ‘corrected mistake’, defined as the triumphant return of a player who left young, realised his potential elsewhere, and is now back where he belongs. And there is an element of all three scenarios in the return of Fernando Torres to Atletico Madrid.
The returning legend, the local boy done good, the triumphant second coming of one who left young. Earlier this week, and for the first time in his career, Torres scored in his fifth consecutive game. Not at Liverpool, not at Chelsea, but at Atletico Madrid. That hallowed Vicente Calderon turf he learned his trade on as a young boy has reinvigorated the stalled career of a revitalised man. There is no place like home.
On first instincts, the 2012 Champions League semi-final second-leg tie between Chelsea and Barcelona, the European Championship final of the same year, the 2013 Europa League final and a Madrid derby in the 2015 Copa del Rey last 16 second leg have little in common. Four random games plucked from history, with no one linking factor. All were intense, emotional and entertaining, with trophies and rivalries at stake, but something far more specific intrinsically marries these particular matches.
From the period of 2011 until the current day, each goal scored by Torres has elicited the same reaction from the viewing public. As soon as an effort from the Spaniard finds the back of the net in any given match, the football world is united in gleeful declaration: He is back.
There is more than a hint of mockery in the statement. Few footballers have suffered such an alarming fall from grace as Torres. The Spaniard was one of the finest strikers in the world at his peak, but soon began a descent which, until recently, had earmarked him as a laughing stock. When you are routinely considered the worst transfer involving a British club of all time in a move which directly influenced Andy Carroll becoming a £35million footballer, things have gone badly wrong.
Injuries played a massive part in Torres’ deterioration, but that does not make the decline easier to fathom. After becoming Liverpool’s most expensive player ever at around £20million, the Spaniard set about on a path of destruction throughout the Premier League. In three-and-a-half seasons at Anfield, Torres scored 81 goals in 142 games, was named in two PFA Teams of the Year, two FIFPro World XIs of the Year, and won the ‘Not Quite Messi Or Ronaldo Award’, being crowned the third best player in the world in 2008. Add his numerous achievements as a crucial component of a dominant Spanish national team, and Torres had rightfully moulded a reputation as a superstar.
Chelsea agreed. In January 2011, the Blues pursued the forward, eventually prevailing with a record £50million offer. Then just 26, this was supposed to herald Torres’ peak years as a footballer. Instead, El Nino would become a pale imitation of what he once was. Goals and success were his currency at Anfield, but misses and misery typified his time at Stamford Bridge.
Then again, ‘success’ can be measured in different ways. As excellent as Torres was at Liverpool, his personal accolades were not matched by a single trophy. As pitiful as he became at Chelsea, he won a Champions League, a Europa League and an FA Cup in three years. Football is a curious beast.
In three years at Chelsea, distinction became derision. Renown became ridicule. Merit became mockery. A record of 45 goals in 172 games – each signalling ‘the return of Fernando Torres’ – pointed to a star that had once burned bright but was now flickering towards a conclusion. The fearsome youngster who had once dominated Europe was now an ageing, embattled punchline.
A short spell with AC Milan could not rescue Torres, a fading player struggling at a fading club. His return to Atletico on loan in January 2015 felt like the smallest of mercies. The returning legend, the local boy done good, the triumphant second coming of one who left young. The precocious talent who left his first love already an icon at 23, who enjoyed different degrees of success throughout his career, returning back to where he belongs after realising his potential elsewhere. Think Henry, think Tevez, think Fabregas, then multiply the relief and emotion, and you have the return of Torres.
Despite scoring only 46 goals in 182 games across the preceding four years, Torres was welcomed back a hero at Atletico. Fourty-five thousand fans attended the unveiling of a former club captain. “How nice it is to return home,” was his simple message. Six goals would follow in his first half season, but the Spaniard was enjoying his football once more. His once phenomenal pace had betrayed him long ago, but his movement, his finishing and his influence remained.
This campaign has been a memorable one for Torres. He has scored in his last five matches, including a vital Champions League goal against Barcelona, and strikes which have kept Atletico alive in their quest for a La Liga title. A Segunda Division championship in 2002 represents the only trophy Torres has won with his boyhood club. He will harbour realistic hopes of capturing at least one more title before his departure.
Only Antoine Griezmann has scored more often for Diego Simeone’s side this campaign, and this represents Torres’ best return in a league season since exiting Liverpool. The 32-year-old is the university student who leaves home young and studies far afield, but who can never quite settle away from his family. The fans will happily do his laundry and cook his tea, for they are simply thankful their prodigal son has returned.
The forward’s form has even earned speculation concerning an international recall. Torres’ last cap for Spain came during a failed attempt to defend their crown at the 2014 World Cup. Struggles with form and fitness since must have seen the striker resign hope completely. A Euro 2016 call-up would be the most dramatic return of all.
Each of his five most recent goals have met that same predictable reaction: ‘Torres is back’. Not back to his former brilliant self, but back home. Back where he belongs. He found adulation at Liverpool and trophies at Chelsea, but there is nothing quite like your first love. There is nothing quite like home.