A man who has won trophies with teams in several countries and helped his country with a World Cup has, according to him, yet to play the biggest game of his life.
Fernando Torres, nicknamed ‘El Nino’ and branded as the 50-million-pound ($79.5 million) bust after Chelsea paid that transfer price to Liverpool in 2011, grew up a fan of Atletico Madrid. In the San Siro Stadium Saturday he will wear that jersey in the Champions’ League final against bitter rival Real Madrid.
“Without doubt this is the most important, special and beautiful game in my life,” he told the Guardian. “When you’ve been an Atlético fan from the age of five, the chance to win this trophy with this club is different to anything else I have had."
Torres –- who grew up in the club’s youth system and played first-team soccer from 2001 until his move to Liverpool six years later -- had not yet rejoined Atleti two years ago when it returned to the Champions League final for the first time in four decades. It led Real, 1-0, in stoppage time when Sergio Ramos headed home a spirit-crushing equalizer. Gareth Bale struck the winner with ten minutes of extra time remaining and two very late goals snuffed out Atleti's gallant quest.
Questions swirled about Atleti in the bitter aftermath of that defeat. How many players could the club retain and would their guiding force, manager Diego Simeone, stay on as well? The club had sensationally topped Real and Barcelona to claim the La Liga title for the first time in nearly two decades, but the future seemed murky.
Striker Diego Costa and defender Filipe Luis moved to Chelsea, as did keeper Thibaut Courtois, who had been on loan. Forward David Villa was released and later stunned the world by signing a deal with MLS.
Other key key players remained. Uruguayan centerback Diego Godin, Portuguese midfielder Thiago, captain Gabi, and Spanish midfielder Koke – all Atleti players when the club burst into international prominence by winning the 2012 Europa League – stayed, as did Simeone, who shrewdly reformed the team around additions such as Antoine Griezemann, Mario Mandzukic, and Jan Oblak. In January 2015, Torres arrived from AC Milan, and he’s scored a modest 14 goals as Atletico scaled its way back to the European summit.
Torres first visited the Estadio Vincente Calderon with his grandfather and debuted for Atleti at age 17. In six seasons, he scored 82 goals in 214 appearances. Last February he scored his 100th goal (including friendlies) for the club, 15 years after hitting his first.
Yet he’s yet to win a trophy with his boyhood team; during his absence, it has captured the Copa del Rey, league crown, and two Europa League titles. His triumphs with Chelsea and Spain are treasured yet not the same as what it would mean a Champions League trophy lifted while wearing the jersey he cherished as a boy.
“It means everything; everything you dream when you are a kid,” he said. “I now have the chance to make this dream come true. I’ve been able to play for great teams and to win many things but this is special: it’s what I wanted when I was a kid, more than I could even have dreamed.
“I had the chance to come back and fight for what I really wanted. [Saturday] is the game of my life without doubt.”
Playing in the San Siro with Milan during a loan spell during the first half of the 2014-15 season he hopes is a good omen.
“I hope it’s a magical place for Atlético fans from tomorrow, somewhere we can always look back upon with good memories,” he said. “People will come to support us and I hope they’ll be part of a special night.”
Any meeting of the Madrid rivals is special yet there’s never been one like this one. Two years ago in Lisbon, the Atleti players, who were within seconds of their club winning Europe’s greatest club prize for the first time, instead had to watch Real celebrate its record 10th triumph. They share a history of 113 years that will be boiled down into a few hours in front of a global audience.
“We live in the same city, we know what Madrid represent and that gives us the desire to fight and to change history,” says Torres. “This is a chance to write a page in the history of Atlético that no one has written, another step in what we have been doing over the last four years. History changes all the time and now we want to write it.”