Fernando Torres and the perils of coming home

Rekindling old relationships between players and clubs can be difficult, but Fernando Torres has pulled it off

(Atletico Madrid)

In July of 2007, Atletico Madrid’s Fernando Torres bid adios to the only club he ever knew. After seven years on the first squad and after becoming the team’s youngest captain at the tender age of 19, he left the Spanish capital for Liverpool.

In his departing letter to Atletico supporters, Fernando wrote that in his heart he hoped that “…this goodbye is an I’ll see you later.”

Seven and half years after his heartfelt letter, the “I’ll see you later” finally came to fruition. Over 45,000 fans filled the stands of the Vicente Calderon one early morning in January 2015 to welcome back their former captain.

“I’m overwhelmed by the displays of affection, which are always many more than I expect, many more than I deserve and it’s been amazing.” Torres said as he addressed the spectators.

He isn’t the striker that once led the front line for Spain. But over the second half of the 2014/2015 season, it seemed Fernando had found the form which eluded him during spells with Chelsea and Milan.

In January of 2015, he bagged two goals to knock out city rivals Real Madrid from the Copa Del Rey. Just two weeks later, he struck the net just 30 seconds after the opening whistle in the return leg of Atletico’s quarter final clash against FC Barcelona. While Barcelona came back to win 3–2 and advance to the semifinals of Spain’s cup competition, it was Torres who had beIN Sport’s Ray Hudson roaring with admiration.

“The confidence is oozing out of his ears!”

Torres’ magical form has come in spells over the last two seasons—he scored 12 goals in 44 appearances last season and has three in 16 appearances this season—and there is no guarantee he’ll stay at the Spanish capital after this campaign (he signed a one-year extension last summer). But there’s no denying that Atletico and Fernando Torres seem to be made for one another.

“He has the opportunity to play and looks good,” said former Spain manager Vicente Del Bosque. “He and Atletico Madrid have rediscovered each other.”

Whether or not the good feelings continue is beside the point—Fernando Torres’s return to his boyhood club is the perfect homecoming. It’s the type of homecoming Cesc Fabregas wishes he had. And for all of us who moved away for school or work, it’s the homecoming we hope to have.

Cesc Fabregas’ return to Barcelona should have been perfect. “I have waited a long time for this moment. After eight years away I hope to leave you all with many great memories.” Fabregas said at his unveiling in August of 2011. It had the makings of the ideal romantic reunion. But Cesc’s three years at the Camp Nou would produce mixed results. For starters, he didn’t quite fit into Pep Guardiola’s system. Cesc may have Barça in his DNA, but his playing style was forged in London. At Arsenal, he played high up the pitch, knowing his teammates would cover in his absence.

At Barcelona however, he was expected to fit a role and stay in position to power Pep’s “tiki-taka” machine. Cesc was an anarchic player playing in orderly system. As his Barcelona teammate Pique would comment “I can see how Cesc would like to have more freedom, as he used to have at Arsenal. But you have to play according to where you are, of course.”

In addition, Cesc’s return seemed doomed to fail before he even arrived. Ahead of him in the rotation were World Cup winning midfielders Xavi Hernandez, Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta. Cesc would have to play out of this world to displace one of the three.

Cesc’s stay in Barcelona finally ended in June of 2014, when then Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho brought him over to Stamford Bridge for a fee of €33 million. Although Cesc was a romantic, nostalgic fit for Barcelona, his playing style and the talent at the club prevented this union from years of fruition. It seemed like a transfer for the sake of a transfer, a luxury purchase.

The whole process was guided by passion and nostalgia rather than logic and need. Pep and the Barcelona board tried to make Fabregas’ square peg fit into a round hole. Cesc’s homecoming didn’t have a fairytale ending, and he wound up leaving Barcelona, again.

Fernando Torres’ return to Atletico Madrid doesn’t have the forced fit of the Cesc Fabregas saga. Torres and the club seemed to come together because destiny dictated so. They’re like two high school sweethearts reuniting after years apart and falling back in love. They were always dear to one another but they needed to grow apart, to get closer.

Torres needed a new challenge and an opportunity to win titles. Atletico needed space from their boy captain to build a foundation and have a chance at breaking the Barça-Madrid dominance. For the most part, the two got what they wanted.

Fernando was part of the Chelsea squads that took home the FA Cup, the Europa League and the Champions League titles. Atletico meanwhile, seemed to produce strikers like a factory, as international stars Diego Forlan, Sergio Aguero, Radamel Falcao and Diego Costa filled the role once held by Atletico’s 19-year-old captain.

The foundation that was built after Fernando’s exit was rocky at first (in the three seasons following his exit, Atletico finished fourth, fourth, and ninth). But in the 2013/2014 season they succeeded in breaking the Barcelona-Real Madrid dominance by winning La Liga. In addition, they came within a Sergio Ramos header from beating their city rivals in the Champions League final.

Fernando got what he wanted: To win silverware. And although he comes back, not as an elite forward, it’s worth remembering that he didn’t leave in 2007 as one either. The difference of course was that seven years ago he was on the cusp of greatness and now he’s on the ebb from it, settling in to a support role.

Homecomings are heartbreaking because they never match our romantic and idealistic expectations. But with Torres, his return home is already as near perfect as one could hope. He has no pressure to save the team and he has nothing left to prove. His best days may be behind him and most fans, the logical ones anyway, know what Simeone and the Atletico brass understand: Torres isn’t the savior. Torres is back because it felt right (and is right) for both player and club.

Thousands of fans snaked around the Vicente Calderon, waiting to greet Fernando that Sunday afternoon. Many brought old jerseys or signs to show their support. One fan in particular held a homemade sign that I think captured the day perfectly. In what looked like a rough hodge-podge of cut-out magazine pages (almost like a dream board), were the letters that spelled out a joyous sentence:

“How beautiful it is to say hi to someone your heart never wanted to say bye to.”

The rest of us can only hope to have such a homecoming.