Fernando Torres sees things clearly: "After all the effort I've put in to fight for my place and play, I'm not going to throw in the towel now". The Atlético Madrid striker visited us here at Diario AS, for an in-depth chat on the past, present and future, not just of Atlético, but of Spanish football. Torres arrived with that familiar smile on his face that never seems to fade, and left happy and charmed by the clear affection the journalists in the AS newsroom have for him, with a queue forming for autographs and selfies with 'El Niño'... Torres spoke passionately about Atleti, what the club means for him, the challenges they face and the possibilities of reducing the gap between them and Barcelona and Real Madrid, and about his love for football and, in particular, the Premier League.
"My future is always next Saturday," he says. "I know every game I play could be my last with Atlético. Maybe not, but that's how I feel. I play every game as if it were my last. Nobody's gifted me anything, not at all. I came in the winter transfer window and my first games were against Real Madrid and Barcelona. I scored, but that wasn’t enough to get a starting spot. I then finished the season as a starter. The next season was similar and I ended up playing, having started off at a disadvantage. I'm here on my own merits and because of my performances".
Diego Costa back at Atlético Madrid
In January, Vitolo and Diego Costa will be added to Diego Simeone's first-team options, and Atlético need to reduce the squad to make room for the new signings. For Torres, as he himself explains, it's not a new situation. His future is the focus of attention, but his dream is to carry on, score more goals in red and white and celebrate trophies at Neptuno, the central square in Madrid where Atleti party with their fans after their triumphs. "Having come back in January 2015, my loan deal was going to finish and I wasn't going to renew. That's what they told me. But then Atlético appealed [their Fifa registration ban] and I was able to stay... and I ended up playing. Then in 2016, I said yes to another two years. Then the [Champions League] final in Milan came round and I left the whole thing for later, because I was only thinking about the final. All I had in my mind was the final in Milan. But then, instead of two years, they offered me one. And it ended up being one. At that point I was a starter up front, but in pre-season I was on the bench, because [Kevin] Gameiro had joined; however, I finished the season playing a lot of games. Now Diego Costa is coming in and it'll be tough for me to play, but I'll work to be in the team as I've always done. Putting the Atleti shirt on still makes it all worthwhile. But everything I've achieved has been on my merits, fighting for it, scrapping for it. When I was 17, so many fans told me I'd given them hope. Now I'm back to finish what I started. After all the effort I've put in to fight for my place and play, I’m not going to throw in the towel now."
Composed and thoughtful, Torres is steadily laying out his take on what his experience of these past years at Atlético has been like, and what the future may bring after January's transfer window. His eyes light up when asked about a possible front line of Antoine Griezmann, Torres and Diego Costa. "Hopefully it's a possibility," he says. "I think Costa looks great. He's had a very long pre-season, but he's had a month training with us. He's feeling good. If he has decided to join it's because he's fully committed to Atlético and this group of players."
Atlético's season in LaLiga and in Europe
Torres is enjoying being part of a team which is feeling back to its old self. "I like the look of LaLiga this season, yes. We're fairly close. When you're coming up from behind, it's easier; there's less pressure, because people aren't thinking about you. While on the other hand you do think you’ve got a chance". Torres wants Atlético to fight for everything, and to make things tough for every single rival: "If they ask you if you’re going to win on Sunday, the answer is yes. If they ask you if you're going to lose the odd match from here to the end of the season, well, the answer is probably yes too. That's why the positive message is always to focus on the next match. Nothing more. We started badly, with doubts, but it's a long road and the calendar saw us drop out of the Champions League. The team was up and down and the two draws against Qarabag cost us our Champions League place. Now we've got another opportunity". For many, the Europa League is a minor trophy compared to the aspirations of Atleti, but where some see problems, Torres sees a challenge: "We’re in the Europa League. Another trophy, with the chance of lifting another cup. It's a challenge. And when we're in it, we've got to go for it".
Torres' return to Atlético Madrid
To talk about Torres in the present it's necessary to look to the past. He's 33 now, but was just 23 when he took the hardest decision of his life, to leave the club where he came through the ranks. "I've seen the huge improvement in the clubs in every aspect, the facilities, the players. The club's growth has been huge. I’m always talking to Atleti people. In 2015 I had the chance to return. But I wanted everyone to be in agreement with the decision: 'El Cholo', 'El Profe' [Ortega, Atlético's fitness coach], the employees at the club... It was the moment to come back and I saw everything falling into place". 'El Niño' was back. On 4 January 2015, he was presented at the Calderón to 45,000 fans. "It's my best memory as a footballer. Just to have experienced that day... Just for that moment, it's all been worth it. For that morning in the Calderón it was worth coming back". It was one of the most emotional days ever at the Calderón. "He didn’t give us time to finish the new stadium", laughs Rafael Alique, Atlético Madrid's director of communications. Alfredo Relaño, director of AS, recalls that there was a time, not so long ago, when every Atleti fan was a supporter of the club because of 'El Niño' Torres. It was the time of the Madrid of the Galácticos. "Madrid were keen to sign him several times, but Torres saved the essence of Atlético. A player who had come up through the ranks who brought happiness to Atleti", says José Antonio Martín Otín 'Péton', one of his footballing mentors.
Torres: Atlético in his heart
Torres has returned to Atlético Madrid in search of the hearts and minds of the Atleti fans: "It was said that in the best generation of Spanish footballers there were no Atleti players. That's a lie". Torres' cheeky smile is met with applause from those in attendance. Juan Cantón, general manager of AS, recalled that in the celebration of Spain's trophy successes, Torres made it clear he was an Atleti man, proudly wearing the red and white scarf. "This wasn't a return, it was a reunion, and there were a lot of people who got a ticket to go to the presentation. That's what football gives you. And that's what I've learnt from Atlético: to be a part of it".
Torres had left for Liverpool in different, difficult times in which 'El Niño' was the only thing the club's fans had to grab hold of. "It was really hard realising that the best thing for someone you love so much is to move away. I had a lot of confidence in myself; I knew that it could well turn out well; but if the same hadn't been the case for Atlético, that would have left me with a nasty feeling inside. But things turned out well for both of us," he declares. As we talk about the past and present, Torres also looks to the longer-term future: "As we continue to grow, we'll get closer to Real Madrid and Barcelona. We have to believe. What Atlético have done in recent years is already very difficult, given the financial gulf between the two clubs and Atlético. It has been something almost utopian. But if you convince people that it's possible, little by little they're going to start catching the bug. I'm not so sure about some of the new Atlético fans of today who have only seen the team win, who only know what it's like to see success - when it hasn't always been like that. To the people who start criticising [the team] for a defeat, you have to say: It didn't use to be like this. Keeping the essence [of Atlético] is tough. We need to keep on learning, working hard, and we want to continue to get closer to Real Madrid and Barcelona. One day perhaps the distribution of television revenue will be more equal, and we'll be able to go toe-to-toe with them as equals. Thinking that the best has already come for Atlético is bad for the club, it's a hindrance, because we feel that we can get much closer to them."
Atlético head coach Diego Simeone
We turn to Simeone, the chief architect of this Atlético's ability to challenge for every trophy: "He believes in the growth of the club. And when someone chooses to stay, it's because they believe in it. And the most important thing is stability, which leaves you with the firm foundations on which to grow. And he also feels that Atlético shouldn't settle for what it has. It will take time, but the club must grow to be become even greater." Torres talks about the Wanda Metropolitano: "I was very attached to the Calderón, there's no getting away from that; but we all have to play our part in growing to love this stadium as much as we loved the Calderón. When I pass by it I say, 'What a shame!' But the Wanda Metropolitano is spectacular. And we need a bit of time to win games, to create memories... Out on the field you really hear the atmosphere."
Future and remaining linked to Atlético
As he's already said, Torres is desperate to keep on pulling on the red and white shirt; sooner or later, however, the time will come for him to hang up his boots. He is widely expected to continue his association with the club, and even be given a directorial role. "I have so much respect for the president we have," Torres says. "Enrique Cerezo is the only person who has always respected me, always been unwavering in his words of encouragement for me. I hope he stays for many years. I don't even want to think about the moment when I have to retire from playing. I could help the club with my experience, but hopefully that's not for a few years yet. I guess there'll be an interval between the moment I stop playing and the moment I can return to Atlético." Torres had words of praise for Jan Oblak - "I've never seen a goalkeeper like him; he's the best in the world by a distance," he declared - and Saúl Ñíguez: "He's the player with the biggest present and future in the squad. He's always taken the right steps forward as a player."
Luis Aragonés' impact on the young Torres
The same steps that Torres took, with one man by his side who always looked out for him: "Luis Aragonés was the key coach for me. Now, 12 years later, I get all the things that he would say to me. He almost wanted to teach me too much. Sometimes I'd think: 'What's this guy talking about!' He wanted to teach me everything at a breakneck pace, because he felt he maybe didn't have long before he left Atlético. And I actually had a tough time of it to begin with [under Aragonés], because he wouldn't pick me. I remember that he'd say to me: 'Even in the 'rondos', get yourself next to the good players.' Luis was so right: you can always learn many things from the good players, from the best players." Torres believes that "the defining goal in my career was the one I scored for Spain in Vienna [in the Euro 2008 final win over Germany]."
Admiration for the Premier League
Torres is passionate about the Premier League. "I love [Álvaro] Morata," he says, and declares that improvements are now being made in LaLiga that "you could already see in the Premier League ten years ago. Over there, for example, a referee who couldn't do Liverpool or Everton matches because he was from the area would come and give talks to the players about aspects of the game. He would put on videos and there'd be a debate about the incidents. Then he'd come back some time afterwards to let us know whether the things we had flagged up were to be taken into account. Over there, you don't get altercations in every single passage of play; what is seen as guile here is seen as cheating there. They'd rather lose the game than win it with cheating. And every game feels like the Champions League with the way the stadium is decked out so fantastically. I don't understand why the referees can't talk [to the players] here. I like Hawk-Eye, but not VAR [the video assistant referee system]. The game would keep on coming to a halt. In England, the media impact [that the league has] is huge; any team from the top six has the same impact in Asia or the United States as Real Madrid or Barcelona. Playing there is really special."
- Sagan Tosu