He might not start for Spain in Sunday night's World Cup final, but you just know that Fernando Torres will not complain. The Liverpool forward came into the tournament carrying an injury, has not scored yet and was eventually dropped for the semifinal against Germany. Images of Torres sitting in the dugout before the semifinal looking unhappy were beamed around the world, but he continues to say he will keep working hard and hope to get a chance.
Moaning is not his style. Torres has class.
It may not seem important, but it is, and this week it became clear why.
When LeBron James announced his decision on Thursday night to leave his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers to join the Miami Heat, it ended weeks of speculation about his future, and served, to many, as an example of how a player should not go about changing of teams.
With their many parallels, Torres provides the perfect contrast to LeBron. He joined his hometown team Atletico Madrid at 11, turned down Real Madrid at 12, made his debut at 17 and was named captain at 19. As a youngster, he broke all scoring records: 68 goals in two years as he was named Europe's best U-15 player, before leading Spain to success in the U-16 and U-19 European championships, hitting the winner in the final in both tournaments. Atletico, a team that has always lived in the shadow of its more illustrious neighbor Real, is almost comparable to Cleveland in its tortured history. Yet, Torres helped Atletico win a promotion to La Liga, the top division in Spain in 2002, and was its top scorer for five successive seasons (only Samuel Eto'o and David Villa scored more goals in that period).
For three successive summers, Torres turned down offers from clubs trying to buy him. It was only in summer 2007, when he felt his presence was holding back the team, that he chose to join Liverpool and its Spanish coach Rafa Benitez. But he did so on his own terms: when Benitez wanted him to come to Liverpool to take a physical examination to finalize the deal, Torres asked him to wait a few days, so he could formally say goodbye to the Atletico fans. He did not want to leave without their blessing.
"Being captain of a team like Atletico Madrid so young was an honor but also a very heavy responsibility, and that was one of the reasons why I left," Torres explained. "I wanted to progress on a sporting level at one of Europe's big clubs, but I also wanted to play in a collective, and not be an isolated star."
The supporters understood, they parted on good terms and the decision proved the right one: in the first season after Torres' departure, Atletico, now playing like a team and not dependent on its superstar, finished in the top four for the first time since winning the title in 1996. It finished fourth again the following season and this year, thanks to the goals of Diego Forlan, won the Europa League. Torres, meanwhile, flourished at Liverpool, scoring 33 goals in his first season, and capped it with the winning goal in Spain's 2008 European Championship final victory. As for Torres, he has not been forgotten by his former adoring public. At Atletico's home games, you can still see replica shirts of both the Liverpool and Atletico persuasion bearing his name worn in the stands at the Vincente Calderon Stadium.
The issue of loyalty and class will come up again this summer. Liverpool, in debt to the tune of around $538 million has changed its coach and its American owners, desperate to raise funds, are already fielding offers of up to $60 million for Torres from their Premier League rivals. But don¹t be so sure that Torres will leave. He has been at Anfield for three years and speaks often of his love for the team, its supporters and their unshakeable loyalty. "When we lose a game, I am more upset for them than I am for myself," he said. "Liverpool fans protect the team over and above everything else, their affection has never weakened, and I have a lot of respect for that."
In return, it's feasible that Torres could stay at Liverpool for at least one more season and help the club stabilize under new coach Roy Hodgson. It is significant that he signed a new five-year contract this past May, which allows the club to still attract a huge transfer fee for him in 12 months.
Ultimately, though, the decision will be down to Torres. He has shown before that doing things in the right way is important to him. It may be too late now, but perhaps LeBron could learn a thing or two from that.