It has been a while since Fernando Torres was something other than a melancholic presence on the soccer field. The man nicknamed El Niño—who played for Atlético Madrid, Liverpool, Chelsea, AC Milan, and Atlético again before retiring on Thursday at Japanese club Sagan Tosu—saw the arc of his career bend away from The Next Best Thing towards one of this decade’s biggest disappointments.
Since his contentious and record-breaking move to Chelsea in 2011, Torres was chased around by the specters of his inflated transfer fee (then a British record of about £50 million) and the ghosts of his goal-scoring past. His late career can be defined in one sequence of pure agony from 2011: trailing rivals Manchester United, Torres exploded behind a high line and easily rounded David de Gea before missing an open net:
That play and those like it reshaped Torres’s reputation, turned him from one of the world’s most fearsome strikers into a joke, an overpriced bust who floundered under the supposed brighter lights of Chelsea. He was a player whose best days were already in the past.
But what a past it was, first in Spain and then, most famously, as the spearhead of Liverpool’s golden generation. At his peak, there were few, if any, strikers in the world who could match his fluid combination of size, pace, and scoring instincts.
He came out of Atlético at a time when they were conjuring world-class strikers seemingly out of thin air: Torres, Diego Forlán, Sergio Agüero, Radamel Falcao, Diego Costa—a true murderers’ row. Torres felt like the most special of the bunch, though.
The fluidity of his game was in stark contrast with the jarring power of his quick shots and towering headers. Without the ball, Torres’s relentless energy and tireless running had him resembling a tornado, but at the moment of truth, as he neared the penalty area with the ball at his feet or forehead, he somehow managed to still the storm for a brief moment and channel it all into a lightning bolt of a strike.
Torres’s numbers were impressive and yet fail to do him justice. He scored 82 goals in 214 appearances as a youngster for Atlético, before unloading 65 goals in 102 games in the Premier League for the Pool Boys. Even though his scoring rate nosedived after his move to Chelsea—he only scored 20 goals in 110 league appearances for the London club—he remained reliable in Europe, hitting the back of the net 16 times in 40 appearances in the Champions and Europa Leagues, including nine in 15 matches across both competitions when Chelsea won the Europa League in the 2012-13 season. By any accounting, Torres is one of the best Spanish goalscorers ever, and is a legendary figure of this Premier League era.
The stats, gaudy though they may be, gloss over where Torres’s lasting mark will really be felt, which is in the moments. As part of Spain’s world-dominating side from 2008 to 2012, Torres always came up with massive goals in the big moments, none bigger than his game-winning goal against Germany in the final of the 2008 Euros, which kick-started a run of international dominance never before seen.
And although his Chelsea tenure was a disappointment, Torres played a similarly massive part in their 2012 Champions League title. With Chelsea holding an away goals lead over Barcelona in the dying minutes of the semifinal, Torres raced behind the entire Barcelona team, rounded keeper Víctor Valdés, and sealed Chelsea’s place in the final, where they would beat Bayern Munich for the club’s first and only Champions League trophy:
Those traditional Torres moments were fewer and farther between during the back half of his career, though he did enjoy a brief but glorious renaissance upon his return to Atlético Madrid, a boy from Madrid who’d become a beloved icon. There, he showed some flashes of his old skills, dulled but not absent as they seemed to be in London, though it was clear these were the last flickers of a dying flame.
Taken as a whole, Torres’s career is vaguely a disappointment, more for what he lost due to injuries than any unfulfilled potential. He did realize that potential, first in Spain and then at Anfield, and for three-and-a-half years in Liverpool, there was no striker quite like him. He was a modern goalscorer in a sport that was about to redefine what that meant, thanks to the exploits of Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, and the cadre of forwards that would emerge in their wake.
Torres wasn’t quite at the intergalactic level of Messi and Ronaldo, but his skills and elegance made him unstoppable, and his dedication to defensive work made him a pressing staple a few years before pressing became the dominant style of play in Europe. So many soccer players lead forgettably competent careers, but Torres was never unremarkable. Whether it was due to his talent, or his injury-plagued flame-out at Chelsea and beyond, you always had to pay attention to El Niño.