“Liverpool have always been a club with a mentality, an identity, that I like. They are a club trabajador [humble, hard working, people’s club]. They are a team that maybe doesn’t have as many stars as other clubs but it has traditionally been as successful, or more so, because of the attitude, the values, the mentality. Liverpool are a huge club but with a humility about them that attracted me. Liverpool haven’t won the Premier League for a long time, but they’ve had success and still have a real ambition to win things. That was the perfect combination: a successful, big club but one that still had real hunger. That’s not easy to find…”
The above quote was uttered by Fernando Torres, speaking to FourFourTwo magazine, during his first season at Liverpool. Some three years later Torres would be handing in a transfer request in the wake of renewed interest and a rejected bid from Chelsea.
This raises two issues: what has happened during the interim, and why would Chelsea Football Club appeal to him?
I’ll tackle the latter part first simply because it relates to Torres’ words at the head of the article. Torres was answering a two-word question from the interviewer: “Why Liverpool?”
He has never been shy in comparing the attitude and mentality of Liverpool with that of his first love, Atlético Madrid. Torres takes pride in his working class roots, and is known as a quiet, humble character off the pitch - more interested in walking his dogs than the trappings of fame and wealth. Atléti supporters, much like Liverpool’s, see things with a sense of us-against-the-world. Not the richest, not the most glamorous, but with an innate pride and identity that is defined by their football club.
Chelsea were a middling football club with one league title to their name when they were bought by a Russian billionaire in 2003. Before then, the club had done well to establish themselves towards the top end of the English league during the latter half of the 1990s and the early 2000s, and had picked up a number of trophies during this time. However, they had overspent to enable these achievements, and before Roman Abramovich intervened were in financial dire straits.
Following the Abramovich takeover the club spent hundreds of millions assembling a formidable squad, also taking Manchester United’s chief executive, Peter Kenyon, and Porto’s Champions League-winning coach Jose Mourinho. What followed was success unparalleled in the club’s history. The club became European giants overnight, and were happy to let everyone know as much, with Mourinho and Kenyon forming a sort of smarm tag-team.
They were all-too happy to bask in their sporting superiority in a manner not unlike Real Madrid, a club we can safely assume to be Torres’ least favourite in football. If Liverpool and Atléti were Rocky Balboa, then Chelsea and Real Madrid are more like Ivan Drago: well-funded, slick, powerful, and arguably a bit soulless.
All this begs the question now: “Why Chelsea?”
The simplest answer you’ll get to this is that Chelsea are in an immediate position to challenge for the top honours. They are current English champions, and though an inexplicable run of poor form has practically killed off their hopes of retaining the title, they still possess a very strong team.
Liverpool on the other hand have declined from a title challenge in 2008-2009, to a poor 7th place finish last season, and the nadir of Roy Hodgson’s brief stint as manager this season. They have sold two of their key players - Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano - and been unable to replace them with players of equal quality.
Following that title-chasing season, when the club finished second with a points total that would have won the league in many other seasons, the club were operating a sell-to-buy policy due to the disastrous ownership of Tom Hicks and George Gillett. It was after that season that the club should have been looking to bolster the squad with at least one top-class starter to give the side the extra cutting edge it needed.
Instead the club lost its metronome and most important player, Xabi Alonso, as well as influential squad members Sami Hyypia and Alvaro Arbeloa. Direct replacements were signed, but overall the squad was weakened and the team struggled the following season. That ‘extra edge’ signing was never even on the cards as financial problems at the club deepened.
Liverpool are only just emerging from those dark days, and post-Hicks, Gillett and Hodgson (not to mention former managing director Christian Purslow) the club is in a position to start moving forward again, as the signing of Luis Suárez from Ajax will attest. The problem as far as Torres is allegedly concerned is that too large a rebuilding job is required for the club to be in a position to challenge for the title and Champions League once more.
As I see it, Liverpool need five first team signings to be in a position to think about such things. The club’s new owners have spoken about challenging for the title in three years time. By that point Torres will be 29-years-old and could feasibly still have no club honours to his name bar a Spanish second division title won at Atléti. Torres is not Steven Gerrard, who also famously flirted with a move to Chelsea due to a desire to be part of a championship-winning team. Gerrard was playing for his boyhood idols in his hometown and ultimately couldn’t tear himself away. Torres has already left his behind.
Many have reasoned that Chelsea require rebuilding just as much as Liverpool, but while our owners talk about replicating the Arsenal model of team building - with an eye on the forthcoming financial fair play rules - Chelsea still carry the financial clout to buy a team in a single transfer window, and their ageing squad is still very much superior to Liverpool’s. And even with the promise of new financial rules you can’t bet against clubs being able circumvent them.
Other rumours to have done the rounds are that Torres was one of a number of players to have influenced the decision to part company with Rafael Benitez, and that Torres has a grievance with how the club have managed the injuries that ultimately put paid to his involvement in Spain’s World Cup victory. At that tournament he was certainly there in body, but was a shadow of the player that had spent the past years terrorising defences in the Premier League and Europe.
Such stories can be dismissed as the idle talk of the internet, but Torres’ mood has clearly darkened since he gave the following quote in November 2009:
“Each player has one place in the world where he is happy and as a result he plays well. My place is Anfield. Every game I can play there I feel good.”
Ultimately, Liverpool fans will be able to extrapolate Torres’ motives by what happens in the next few days. If the club is strong-armed into selling before the end of the January window, then Torres will reason that he feels himself in a better position to win titles at Chelsea in the short term and in future. That would be his prerogative, though his previous comments about club identity and spirit would have to be questioned.
Chelsea’s image has softened post-Mourinho and Kenyon, and they currently have a manager in Ancelotti that I greatly admire, both for his ability and how he conducts himself in public. He carries a sense of dignity and class that the club has previously lacked, exceptions such as Gianfranco Zola aside. But no-one could claim that the modern Chelsea is anything but an artificial creation funded by the super-rich, much like Manchester City now. Of course it would be fantastic to have a bottomless well of cash with which to construct a side, but any sense of identity you had previously carried gets lost in the hoopla.
I personally cannot see it being a case of Torres being swayed by the bright lights of west London, as other players often are. Torres and his wife Olalla shun the celebrity lifestyle and have recently had their second child. Their preference appears to be for a quiet, settled family life.
This brings us back to the conclusion that Torres has reached a point of impatience at not winning major club honours and is willing to forgo the embrace of ‘his’ people for the promise tangible rewards. The indie music fan in me would refer to this as ‘selling out’, though such concepts don’t really exist within football. Ambition and success are paramount to any athlete worth their salt.
Still, the overwhelming feeling would be one of massive disappointment. Torres is adored by Liverpool fans. Like Pepe Reina, he is seen as someone that ‘gets it’, or at least ‘got it’. He came to Liverpool from a foreign city and embraced the spirit of the club and the city, and the fans responded to that. Now he is looking to duck out just as the club has found some long-needed stability and the promise of progress. To a set of fans that fought tooth and nail against the previous regime and are finally looking forward, the timing is bewildering.
If it ends up being a case of posturing for an improved contract - and I really can’t believe it would be - then again the feeling would be one of disappointment. Of course it would be a relief to keep him, and I personally would sanction a new deal on improved terms if it achieved just that, but the relationship between Torres and the fans would be damaged at a time when he has rediscovered his motivation under Kenny Dalglish. Torres is seen in a different light to the likes of Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez. To have him re-bracketed with players now derided as mercenaries would be hard to swallow. Again, from ‘get it’ to ‘got it’.
Personally, I don’t believe this story is run yet. It is perhaps naivety on my part to have real world expectations of any emotional bonds rich young professional athletes might feel, but I can still see a twist in the story. The club has fought against the wishes of wantaway stars before now and convinced them to stay. Torres is playing well again under a man he is known to greatly admire. The next three days will tell if time has run out to convince Torres of the club’s ambitions and plans.
The trabajador must fight for the soul of one of his own.