(Editor’s note: read chapters 1 & 2 here.)
CHAPTER THREE: “I had signed with the club of my life.”
Torres continued climbing the ladder, beginning to make noise on the national - and European - stage. Atleti’s U-14 squad played at the Nike World Club Cup against the best teams in the world, including Real Madrid, Barcelona, Milan and Manchester United. Torres - the captain - and his squad would return to Madrid as champions.
Fernando Torres: The level was a lot higher than what I’d known up to that moment...and even with that competition, we won!
Pedro Calvo - Torres’ manager in Cadete: Against our near-neighbors, Andorra, we won 11-1, but we played poorly, without commitment, without bite. So everyone, and Fernando in particular, was read the riot act before the game against PSV. They were told that this would not do and we would have to do better. He went out onto the pitch really wanting to show me that he didn’t merit what I said. So in one of the first moves, he swerved past five opponents, then went round the keeper, stopped the ball on the goal line, looked over to the dugout, and blasted a shot into the goal.
In the quarterfinals (also against PSV), per Torres biographer Luca Caioli, El Niño did the same thing -- in the game’s first move, Torres dribbled past three defenders, nutmegged the fourth, and finished with a chip over the keeper. Atlético would go on to defeat Real Madrid in the semifinals and Reggiana in the finals, lifting the first major trophy of Torres’ career.
Torres was named the best player in his age group at the tournament. In just a few short years, he’d gone from playing with “a group of friends” at Rayo 13 to being the best European player in his age group.
Torres advanced to Juvenil - three years higher than Cadete - at once.
Fernando Torres: I signed my first contract with Atlético de Madrid at the age of 15. I had signed with the club of my life.
The team won the U-16 European championship, with Torres the top scorer at the tournament. The manager, Abraham García, pushed him to be the best he could be.
Fernando Torres: This success started to change my life. When I arrived in Madrid, people stopped me in the streets. This left an impression on me, because nothing like this had ever happened to me before.
Ignacio “Nacho” Aznar Torrente - former striker on the Juveniles team: Fer was a model of power, ability to score with headers, movement and finishing in front of goal. Abraham (García, the team’s manager) pushed us, him and me. He was never satisfied. He knew that Fernando and I could go further.
Abraham García - Torres’ Juveniles Manager: Our relationship, which lasted two years, was more of a professional than personal one. More as a joke than anything else, I told not to worry, that if one day football didn’t work out, with his looks and general appearance, he could always earn a living in the world of fashion. And now look where he is, a star player as well as being a model in loads of advertising campaigns.
He was the player everyone looked up to. He had charm and he made the difference.
He was very responsible and knew how to behave -- both at a party and in the dressing room. He didn’t put on any airs. He was always talking about the team and encouraging the others. He was very humble but at the same time very mature for his age. He would listen when you explained something to him or commented on something he was doing wrong that he should improve.
The first team would soon beckon, and Torres would become an out and out star.
Fernando Torres: I played a game with the under-18s and played in the Champions Cup final with the Juveniles team. A few days after, Paulo Futre (Atlético legend and director of football at the time) called. He told me that I would be training and playing the preseason with the first team, and that it would be convenient for me to start integrating myself in the team. This happened on a Tuesday. On Wednesday, I went to training and on Sunday, I made my debut in the Calderón against Leganés. It was May 27, 2001.
Torres would play 26 minutes, entering the match for Luque. He was 17 years old. This led to fans calling him “El Niño” - The Kid.
Fernando Torres: It was just after one o'clock, the stadium was full, the promotion still at stake, it was very hot, we won 1-0, and the tension was in every corner of the Calderón. But I was strangely calm, and I was overwhelmed by the enormous desire to play.
I felt that when I was very young, I had achieved everything I had ever dreamed of in life, and I did not believe it. When I was a kid I thought that when I got there (to the first team) that I had accomplished everything, but I was wrong: that morning, I just took the first step.
CHAPTER FOUR: Icon
A few days later, Torres would experience his first disappointment with Atlético de Madrid. El Niño scored his first professional goal in Albacete, but a worse goal differential than Tenerife prevented Atlético’s promotion from Segunda División to La Liga.
Fernando Torres: I lived the contrast of this club for the first time.
In 2002, Torres’ first full year with the first team, Atlético secured promotion and Torres competed in the U-19 championships. Although Torres only scored six goals in 36 matches, he would break out the next season in the first division.
Fernando Torres: It was a good season. I scored 13 goals and I played at a good level the whole season, especially against Barcelona and Deportivo La Coruña in the Calderón. These two matches in a way marked my career as a professional footballer, because I felt that the fans began to believe in my game and believe in me.
In 2003, Chelsea - operating with newfound deep pockets thanks to owner Roman Abramovich - bid nearly 30 million pounds for Torres. The bid was rejected. Torres scored 19 goals in 35 appearances, good enough to make him the third highest scorer in La Liga.
Over the next few years, Torres became Atlético’s talisman. At 19 years old, he was named captain of Atleti’s first team. The kid who broke into Atlético’s first team at age 17 now represented new hope as the man who had dragged los colchoneros from the depths of its darkest days in Segunda. He scored over 90 goals in over 200 appearances during his first sting in red and white. He also represented Atlético on an international stage as a key cog in the national team La Furia Roja.
There are two words that you often hear mentioned with Torres and Atlético -- idol and icon.
Diego Simeone -- current Atlético manager: Fernando loves the club and he is an idol. He has brought a lot to the club.
Sid Lowe -- football journalist: It is hard to do justice to just how much of an idol Torres is at the Calderón, where Liverpool shirts were worn after his departure and the goal that won Spain’s first international tournament in 44 years was considered theirs, not least because he celebrated it, and the World Cup, by draping himself in an Atlético flag. They love The Kid who always supported them and who, the way they see it, dragged them out of the Second Division, who left to conquer the world but never forgot them and fulfilled his promise to return.
Lee Roden, FourFourTwo: It’s important to grasp how big of an Atlético icon Torres is. He’s the only other person at the Calderón capable of rivaling Simeone in popularity and the supporters will always love him unconditionally.
Saúl Ñiguez -- current Atlético midfielder: He (Torres) is an example. Everyone in football knows who he is, but when you know him he’s an idol even for how he works. He’s so good and he’s a star, but he works the most and he’s the last to leave.
His personality off the pitch also endeared him to fans.
Fernando Torres: I consider myself an accessible person. I think that signing autographs is almost a moral obligation because of the enthusiasm, the excitement, and the affection that the fans treat me with. It wasn’t too long ago that I was in their place. Being important to the fans is a pride and a satisfaction.
It didn’t hurt that he was a huge fan of the club and loyal to its colors, and the authority on the so-called “sentimiento atlético” (Atlético feeling).
Fernando Torres: I’ve lived through a doblete, relegation, promotion, happiness, and disappointment, both as a fan and a player. I’ve seen people of all ages crying in the stands, and I’ve also seen fans leave the stands happy, despite their team losing. They were content because they had seen their Atleti play.
In 2004, Torres bagged 21 goals in all competitions, a career high at that point. Atlético lost out on a Champions League spot on the final matchday of the season. La Furia Roja were knocked out of Euro 2004 by hosts Portugal, falling in the final group stage game.
Atleti fell short of European football in 2005 and lost in the semifinals of the Copa del Rey to Osasuna. Torres, however, continued to score goals -- 20 in total.
Fernando Torres: All of the hopeful excitement of winning a title for Atlético began to ebb, and the disappointment was enormous.
In 2006, Atleti hired Carlos Bianchi - someone whom Torres described as “first rate” - as manager. The Argentine had just completed a very successful stint at Boca Juniors. However, things still weren’t looking up for los rojiblancos.
Fernando Torres: In truth, he didn’t adapt to the squad, and we didn’t adapt to him.
Torres shone in the 2006 World Cup, leading to a great deal of interest from larger clubs than Atleti. He scored three goals, tying him with Valencia’s David Villa as Spain’s top scorer.
Fernando Torres: Sincerely, various teams were formally interested in me, but I told them all that I wouldn’t move from Atleti. To demonstrate my faith and loyalty to my lifelong colors, I decided to accept the proposal to extend my contract another year, until June 2009.
In the summer of 2007, after Atleti once again lost its place in European football on the final day of the season, it finally happened -- Torres transferred to Liverpool for a fee of 20 million pounds. Torres had been the club’s leading scorer in each of the past five seasons. On June 30, Atlético signed Diego Forlán - an Atlético legend in his own right - from Villareal as Torres’ ostensible replacement. On July 4th, El Niño held a press conference to say goodbye to the club of his life and its fans.
Fernando Torres: My best childhood memories are dyed red and white, but I needed a change, and I had at hand a project at the highest level that I could’ve dreamt. Atleti needed to live without me, and I needed to live without Atleti.
Enrique Cerezo -- Atlético President: (At the press conference) In the name of the whole club, I want to give recognition to one of the great players that has passed through this club. In the seven years since he broke into the first team, he has given everything for this club and become an icon. His commitment, guts, and love of the club’s colors are an example to everyone, especially the young players who want to follow in his footsteps.