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El Niño: an Oral History of Fernando Torres at Atlético de Madrid, Chapters 1 & 2

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The first two parts of this special history of Fernando Torres’ unbreakable bond with Atlético and its fans.

Club Atletico de Madrid v CD Guijuelo - Copa del Rey Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Author’s Note: Many quotes are translated from Spanish. During the 2015-2016 school year, I had the opportunity to live in Madrid and teach at the elementary school in Fuenlabrada that Fernando Torres briefly attended.

At my very first Atlético game - home to Sporting Gijón on Nov. 8, 2015 - my buddy Spoos and I visited a memorabilia tent outside of the Vicente Calderón. The vendor was selling cheap, knockoff jerseys -- the player’s names were written on both of the sleeves, and there was no club badge. I had the choice between Fernando Torres’ number nine, Antoine Griezmann’s number seven and Jackson Martínez’ number 11. I chose Torres.

At that point, most of my soccer knowledge came from the 2008 World Cup, Euro 2010 and FIFA 12. I’d known about Torres before I knew that Atlético existed. So when I entered the stadium, I expected this version of El Niño -- the long blonde hair, the electric pace that more than made up for his so-so first touch, the knee slide celebration.

Torres never left the bench. Diego Simeone called for Jesús Gámez in the 46th minute, Ángel Correa in the 64th and Óliver Torres in the 78th. But the number nine never sniffed the pitch.

However, if you were sitting in the stands and weren’t watching the game, you never would have known it. In between choruses of their classic “Ale, ale, aleeeeee!” chant, the Calderón still found time to sing Torres’s classic “Fernando Torres, lo lo lo lo lo lo, Fernando Torres” cheer, to the tune of the chorus of “Can’t Take My Eyes off of You.” Even when El Niño didn’t play, atléticos in the stadium felt the need to show their appreciation for the man who meant - and means, and 50 years from now will still mean - so much to the club.

Later in the season, Atleti traveled to the Camp Nou for the first leg of the Champions League quarterfinals against Barcelona. In the first half, Torres gave Atleti the lead in the tie with a sweet finish off a clever assist from Koke, and promptly got sent off after a pair of boneheaded challenges. Barça would grab a couple of goals, sitting pretty for the reverse fixture in the Calderón. Torres described the evening as the worst moment in his career. Before his red card, Atleti had been outplaying Barça. Undeniably, he’d put the team in a bad spot.

The fans couldn’t have cared less. After Atleti flipped the tie with a heroic performance in the Calderón and a pair of Griezmann goals, the players - after a brief 10-minute spell in the locker room - returned to midfield to celebrate with their fans, none of whom had left. The whole team had changed into the same practice jersey and sandals, so Torres - who’d been suspended from the game because of his red card - stood out from the bunch in a white, long-sleeved t-shirt and black soccer sweats. The fans let him hear it:

“FERNANDO TORRRREES, LO LO LO LO LO LO, FERNANDO TORRRRESS, LO LO LO LO LO LO, FERNANDO TORRRESS, LO LO LO LO LO LO…”

I would say his red card was forgiven, but I honestly don’t think the fans ever held it against him.

Torres in the Calderón is Drew Brees in New Orleans. He is Tim Duncan in San Antonio. He is Tom Brady, Big Papi and Larry Bird in Boston. No matter how much his form dips, no matter how many untimely red cards he picks up, no matter how often he loses the ball, Atlético fans will never whistle Torres.

Ultimately, this oral history was written to explore what El Niño means to Atlético de Madrid, both to the club and its fans. And ultimately, Torres’ relationship with the fans - mutual, unconditional love - is pretty symbolic of a lot of things that make supporting Atlético so unique and special.

Atletico Madrid v Deportivo La Coruna Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

CHAPTER ONE: The Kid

Fernando Torres grew up in Fuenlabrada, an unremarkable working-class suburb of Madrid in which tall, tower block apartment buildings breed tall, tower block apartment buildings, all of which look the same. Fuenlabrada’s population exploded in the ‘80s, when an influx of young people from both Madrid and Spain’s other autonomous communities found work in the city.

Álex - Atleti fan: A lot of the big-time Spanish footballers are from random, crappy suburbs of Madrid. Iker Casillas is from Móstoles, Fernando Torres is from Fuenlabrada.

Pilar - teacher, Clara Campoamor Elementary School: I taught him in infantil [preschool] at Clara Campoamor in Fuenlabrada. He was a very nice boy.

In a mid-2000s Pepsi Ad, Torres mispronounces the soda “Pepsi,” removing the second “p” and saying it “Pesi.” In the ad, he attributes this to local Fuenlabrada slang.

Fernando Torres: In the ad -- Look dude, I’m from Fuenla - I say it “Pesi.”

Claudia - Fuenlabrada resident: I have no idea why he said that. Fuenlabrada isn’t special. I say it “Pepsi.”

At an early age, Torres demonstrated an aptitude for football.

Fernando Torres: When I was two years old, I started to kick around a ball that my brother had at the house. When I was four years old, my interest in football began to appear. My dad would play with me whenever he could, especially in Concello de Boqueixón, where my family went on vacation.

I was 5 years old when I joined my first team, Parque 84. I participated in a football marathon that was organized in the sports center in Fuenlabrada, in the neighborhood where I spent my first years and a great deal of my youth. The games consisted of 15 or 20 kids chasing after a ball -- it was crazy!

Eventually, the stadium in Fuenlabrada would be named after Torres. Today, the Estadio Fernando Torres - with a capacity of 2,500 - plays host to home matches for C.F. Fuenlabrada, a Segunda B side.

When Torres was 6, he found motivation for a career in football - and as a forward - in an unexpected place.

Fernando Torres: At six years old, everyone in school was talking about this cartoon about football, from Japan. It was a series called Oliver y Benji in Spain, and in Japan it was Captain Tsubasa. It’s a cartoon series in which the plot centers around a group of kids who start playing football for fun and end up as professionals. These two young players started as youth team players, got into the national team, won the World Cup, and moved to Barcelona and Bayern Munich, then moved to Europe, so it was like a dream.

I started playing football because of this, and because my brother forced me, and I loved the cartoon. I wanted to be Oliver, because he played out on the field and Benji was the goalkeeper.

After the show, my brother and I would go kick the ball around in the street. I always liked to think I was a pro, like the kids on the show. I always played goalie, until a hard shot, which knocked out two of my teeth, decided that my career between the sticks had ended. Once [this] was over, I started to play as a striker.

Torres would later join a team called Mario’s Holanda, organized by the people who hung out in Torres’s neighborhood café -- Cafetería Marío on Holanda Street. The team comprised about 20 kids, ranging from eight years old to 11 and 12.

Juan Gómez - coach, Mario’s Holanda: At that time in Fuenlabrada, there were a lot of young parents with lads who were really into sport. These families were a bit concerned about street crime, drug taking, and their kids getting into bad company, so we tried to get them together and keep them busy with football.

Fernando Torres: It was the second team I played for, and I got in even though I was younger than the league limit. I played indoor football [for Mario’s Holanda] for three years.

Juan Gómez: They were a pretty good group of kids. We saw Fernando play, and we thought this lad ought to be on our team. Because at eight years old, he had the same skills he has now -- speed and technique. Training didn’t bother him, but - more importantly - he never got tired of learning. Right from that moment, I was convinced Fernando would go far. I always said that to his father, a delightful person, like his brother and the rest of the family. They didn’t believe me. Once after a game in which he scored eight goals, I said it again, and José [Torres’s father] was almost in tears. But I was absolutely sure.

Javier Camacho - teammate, Mario’s Holanda: Physically, [Torres was] very thin, very blond, with loads of freckles. He looked English. As a person, he was the typical leader, the leader of the gang, very mischievous, very shy. For Fernán, like all of us in the gang, we liked to play jokes such as ringing the door entry phone bells on houses in the neighborhood and running away. Typical pranks like that.

Amongst us, he was the extrovert, he ruled the roost, he spoke for everybody else. In the park, when we all ran off because some neighbor got angry and shouted at us, he stayed behind to argue and defend our right to play there. But with people he didn’t know, he put his head down and said nothing.

Apart from girls, of course -- he really had an eye for them. You’d always see him with one from school or from the local area. To be blond and have the air of a leader, the girls really liked that.

Juan Gómez: In the ‘92-’93 season, Fernando got no less than 80 goals and during the three years he was with Mario’s Holanda, we won all our league games. We were champions in everything. And everywhere we were followed by loads of people -- fathers, mothers, brothers, friends. We were one big family.

Javier Camacho: I remember once, we won 24-0 with him scoring 11 on his own. Juan wanted to substitute him to give some of the others a chance, but he wouldn’t have any of it. He wanted to keep going and pile on the goals. That’s what he liked doing.

When Torres was 9, he made his first pilgrimage to the Vicente Calderón. The seeds were planted.

Fernando Torres: I was only a boy of nine years the first day I visited the Trophy Room at the Vicente Calderón. I remember my dad didn’t want to tell me where we were going. I don’t know which of the two of us were more excited - him because of how excited I was, or me because of the surprise that awaited me. When we got there, both of us were delighted. I’d seen photos of the trophies, but I’d never been in front of them, I’d never touched them, and that day I had the opportunity.

All my life I’d heard my family talk about the trophies, cups, and leagues that Atleti had won. That morning, I was lucky enough to feel what I’d always imagined.

Throughout his childhood, Torres would also make regular trips to visit his grandfather -- a huge fan of Atlético.

Fernando Torres: Valdeavero, Madrid. Eulalio and Paz used to live there. In that house, my love for Atlético began to grow. Eulalio, my maternal grandfather, was an Atlético fan -- a huge Atlético fan. While my father’s Galician roots drew me to Deportivo [La Coruña], my grandpa never tired of explaining to be how marvelous it is to be rojiblanco. A plate with the club shield presided over the room. I looked at it with the surprise of a kid in whose heart the colors were already engraved. I was already an atlético.

As a child, Torres was successful not only on the pitch, but in the classroom.

Manuel Briñas - Atlético youth coach: One thing he never abandoned was his studies. Fernando, apart from being a good player, was a great student, and this is thanks to his parents, an exemplary family that raised a beautiful person. Although I treat all players the same, I always followed Fernando’s career outside of Spain.

José Torres - Fernando’s father: [It was important] to appreciate the important things and to understand what are the true values in life.

Barcelona v Athletico Madrid
Torres during his first stint with Atleti.
Photo by Lluis Buera/Getty Images

CHAPTER TWO: “The way the kid moved -- he was different from the others.”

In the early ‘90s, Jesús Gil closed Atleti’s youth system. As a result, Raúl González went across town to become a Real Madrid legend. Fortunately, it was reopened by the time Torres was ready to join.

Along with his dad and his brother, Isra, Torres showed up at the trial in the Madrid barrio of Carabanchel’s Parque de las Cruces - not far from the Calderón - two hours early. There were 200 other kids, and the pitches were made of gravel. They played 11 vs. 11, halves of 20 minutes.

Manuel Briñas: Five hundred kids showed up at Parque de las Cruces, and Victor Peligros with Pedro Del Mazo helping him went around picking groups. The next week, those who had been selected - 40 or 50 - went to Cotorruelo and Manolo Rangel graded and evaluated while I went from place to place taking notes.

Fernando Torres: The first time I played on a [non-indoor] football team, I was ten years old. I played for Rayo 13. It was a good year for me. The best three players were given the chance to try out for Atlético. I scored 55 goals that year, so I was picked.

Alexis - teammate, Mario’s Holanda and Rayo 13: We won the league, pretty much without a problem. I only remember one match where we had to make an effort, against Naranjo. We were losing 2-0, but Fernando arrived and made it 2-1 and then scored again to make it a draw. Amazing.

Andrés Perales - coach, Rayo 13: He was [a] marvel and very kind-hearted, but in the first few sessions it was really complicated to work with him. He was annoyed with his teammates because they didn’t pass the ball to him. He always wanted the ball, always wanted to score. And he did it in every possible way -- from midfield, or by outwitting the opposing players in front of him. He had quality, and he was smart. Once or twice he really lost it, like [with his teammates]. With me, there were never any problems. I was pretty strict and asked for respect and hard work from the whole team.

Fernando Torres: The day of the tryout, I was extremely nervous because of my desire to jump on the field and dominate the world. In the end, things went how I wanted.

Manuel Briñas: I didn’t know him personally, but I had heard talk about him from Joaquín, who was in the Federation keeping record cards. He was Torres’s neighbor in Fuenlabrada, and since [Torres] was 6, he was telling me, “There’s a player I’m gonna bring to Real Madrid. It’s incredible seeing him on Rayo 13.”

When he got there and I realized who he was, I ran into him and I told him, “Kid, keep it up. You’re made to be an Atlético de Madrid player. You will play for Atlético de Madrid.” Seeing how the kid moved, he was different from the others.

Manuel Briñas: In reality, it was Manolo Rangel who evaluated him. I asked him, “what grade should we give the blonde kid with the freckles?”

Manolo Rangel - Atlético youth coach: In response -- Give him an 11.

Manuel Briñas: And that confirmed what I’d told the kid 10 or 15 minutes earlier [about being an Atlético player].

Antonio Seseña - former director of Atlético’s junior players: After five minutes, we told him [Torres], ‘Go and get dressed, lad.’ He looked surprised, he wanted to keep on playing, he thought he was no good, and that he’d failed. He asked me, ‘Am I doing something wrong?’ On the contrary, he had completely won us over.

Manuel Briñas: From those 200 youngsters, we had to choose 40. If I remember rightly, Fernando scored four goals, but the coaches didn’t choose him for that. Apart from the goals he scored, he was marked positively for his involvement in the game and his unselfish attitude.

After the tryout, Torres joined the team and began to advance through the youth ranks.

Fernando Torres: I began at Atlético de Madrid as an 11-year-old. Manolo Rangel was my coach. Thanks to him, I have especially fond memories of this time. The practices and the games were for fun -- this was the time of my life when I had the most fun playing football.

Antonio Seseña: We saw an intelligent lad, who moved well on the pitch, had pace and good technique as well, qualities which, at that age, really stand out.

Fernando Torres: The game continued as a hobby, but I already felt what it meant to belong to a team like Atlético. My arrival coincided with the doblete [Atlético’s league and cup double in 1995-96], and this made me identify with the club even more.

Manolo Rangel: Yes, Fernando Torres at 11 was a very smart kid -- fast, able to lose his marker and beat his opponent. Without having participated too much in the action, I realized that he was doing everything fantastically well. And above all, he seemed to me like a kid who wanted to be a footballer.

Fernando Torres: A few days after joining the team, we took a trip to Belgium. It was my first big trip. I was impressed. The hotel, my teammates, everything about that trip was illuminating. I was living my dream, or at that point what it seemed like my dream could be.

When you belong to a team like Atlético de Madrid at that age, you live with indescribable emotion, but in that moment I couldn’t forget that football was a simple hobby. For my family, it was something else -- almost an ordeal, a torment. And I say “ordeal” because of the effort that my four family members have made so that I could be a professional footballer. Then, none of us knew - or even thought - that I’d get to where I’m at today. My father, in the afternoon, had to leave work to take me to training in Orcasitas [20 km from Fuenlabrada].

On other days, my mother took me to practice on the bus or on the train, rain or shine, because she was always ready and willing. She used to say to me, “the day when you get tired of it, we won’t come back, don’t feel obligated to continue with football.”

But I never got tired of it.

My siblings had to take me to training too. While I trained, they studied in the stands or on the bench of the different fields that they had to take me to.

Barcelona v Atletico Madrid

[To be continued.]