Torres' exit leaves a bitter taste
By the time Fernando Torres actually signed his contract with Chelsea on Monday, there were less than 15 minutes of the transfer window remaining. The clock was ticking, and when he put pen to paper, there was relief more than joy. His situation had reached a point of no return, he was in a corner, and yet the risk of having to return felt real. At times during deadline day, Torres had doubted the deal would go through. But a tense and difficult day -- a tense and difficult few months -- finally ended well for Torres. He got what he wanted.
Well, sort of. This was not the way that the Spaniard had pictured it, nor the way he planned it. He didn't want to leave this way. Under different circumstances, he would have preferred not to leave at all. But the circumstances were what they were. They were not good. Liverpool was not what he thought Liverpool should be and he was not prepared to wait for the club to be once more. That, in a nutshell, is why he wanted to depart Anfield. In the end, the desire simply to leave -- and leave as soon as possible -- overshadowed all else.
Monday was a day of helicopters, tears and arguments, with obstacles to overcome. With each hurdle cleared, the finishing line drew nearer. The first and most significant, the price. Then there was the wait while Liverpool sought a replacement. Few were happier that Andy Carroll was joining Liverpool than the man whose No. 9 shirt he would take. Then there were negotiations over Sunday's clash -- the Reds didn't want Torres playing for Chelsea against them. Legally, that was impossible, but Liverpool sought an informal agreement. That was the one concession it did not get.
If Torres had any doubt as to the way Liverpool fans would receive him on Sunday, confirmation came with the images breathlessly beamed live by Sky Sports News and reproduced in newspapers everywhere. There they were burning his shirt, flames flickering around that No. 9.
The burning of a shirt is perhaps the ultimate in mob cliché, a powerful image gleefully seized upon by hungry cameras. You almost imagine the man behind the camera handing over a bottle of petrol, a box of matches and the shirt. And the chance to be on the telly. A smile and a
While the image was manipulated, the anger and the hurt were genuine enough. And when Torres ill-advisedly used the phrase "big club" upon his arrival at Stamford Bridge, Liverpool supporters could hardly have been more annoyed, their pride pricked. Not least because they had elevated him to the status of a hero. It is always the ones you love who hurt you the most. Despite being disabused of the idea daily, despite players kissing the badge and declaring undying love only to move on, football fans want to believe that players are as loyal as they are. With few exceptions, that's impossible. It is also hard to take.
And yet with that phrase, Torres had actually uttered words of truth.
For Torres, this move was about ambition and desperation. It was about Chelsea being, in his words, a "big club" -- and a big club right now. It was about Liverpool not being one. Not anymore. And maybe not in the foreseeable future. It was about Torres' fear that his career could slip away from him. And indeed, if Liverpool does emerge stronger now, bolstered by the arrivals of Luis Suárez and Carroll, it might be Torres' departure that made that possible.
Torres knows that his connection with the Chelsea fans will not be what it was with Liverpool. Anfield had a greater impact on him than he could ever have imagined and vice versa; he was handed the kind of welcome he could only dream of.
As his brother admitted this week, in that sense, Chelsea is different. He did not say "not as good" but he might as well have done. Torres knows that. He is not lying when he says he watched videos about Liverpool's history or when he notes a connection between the club and his boyhood team, Atlético Madrid. When he dedicated his autobiography to "the best fans in the world," it was not entirely an act of cynicism -- even if it looks like it now.
But from Torres' point of view, the bottom line is very simple: Liverpool is not the club that he joined. And he is not the player. He is no longer a potential star of 23 years; he is a World Cup winner soon to turn 27. That is in part down to Liverpool, but he thinks he deserves better; Liverpool fans think they do too.
When Torres signed, he was a hugely talented striker but one about whom there were significant doubts. Liverpool had just reached a second Champions League final in three years. And with Torres in the side, it would finish fourth and reach the Champions League semifinal. The following season Liverpool finished second in the league -- closer to the title than it had been in almost 20 years. Then it started to go horribly wrong.
In December 2009, Torres was already warning that the club needed significant investment.
"This year should have been a turning point for us," he told the English magazine
"It's frustrating. It's now the owners' turn. They have to sign players so that this does not happen again. If we want to compete with United and Chelsea, we need a much, much more complete squad, we need more genuinely first-class players and we can't let our best players leave."
But they did leave. That warning went unheeded. The financial reality did not allow for investment. Liverpool had slipped out of contention and into debt. Spending on the squad reduced rapidly. The Reds no longer had a Champions League place and the pessimism, even resignation, took hold. Xabi Alonso had gone. Javier Mascherano had, too. Manager Rafa Benítez had gone. Some relationships had soured; in many eyes within the squad, Jamie Carragher went from inspirational defender to problem player. Captain Steven Gerrard was frustrated and injured. Even Torres had suffered an injury -- an injury whose handling had also caused a degree of friction. There was massive uncertainty, battles between manager and board, fans up in arms. The club would ultimately slip into a court battle over ownership.
By last summer, the situation was the opposite of what it had been when Torres signed. He had proved himself one of the best strikers in the world, the kind of player that Chelsea thought was worth £50 million ($80 million). The kind of player that should not have been playing in the Europa League. In his mind, his own culpability for that was not an issue. He had won a European Championship, scoring the winner in the final, and a World Cup (although that was tempered slightly by his limited role in South Africa). Liverpool hadn't won anything. The second-best side in Europe he'd joined was no more.
Bluntly, the Reds weren't very good. Even more bluntly, they weren't good enough for Torres. When he joined Liverpool, he looked up at the Anfield club. Now, he looked down at it and wondered what had happened. Yes, he had embraced the club, its history, its fans, its culture, but he wanted to win. Desperately. He was 26 (he will be 27 in March) and he had won nothing as a club player. Time was running away from him. He could not see how he would win anything with Liverpool.
Already in the summer, there had been two bids for Torres. One from Chelsea and one from Manchester City. The striker was told that he could not leave. Liverpool was in a sales process and could not lose its key assets. There were also bids for Pepe Reina and Steven Gerrard. They, too, were told that they could not depart. Torres was told that if things did not improve, he would be allowed to go; that in return for waiting a future departure would be facilitated, if necessary. But that assurance came from chief executive Christian Purslow -- who no longer has that role with the club. There was no written agreement.
When the sale of the club went through at the High Court in the autumn, there was hope. There was a renewed sense of collectiveness about the club, but some of the players did not necessarily share that. There was also frustration, sparked by the utter failure of the previous owners and still simmering. And those new hopes threatened to go unfulfilled. Under Roy Hodgson, a manager whose decisions Torres and other players could not understand, things were getting even worse on the pitch. Off the pitch, Liverpool's new owners were moving slowly. Sensibly, you might say.
But for a player who wanted more, already frustrated and irritable, already watching time slip away, it was not enough. Torres could see no reason to stay and no one was trying to persuade him to do so. Hodgson's sacking was not enough either. Where, Torres asked himself, was the investment? His perspective became strikingly short-term. There was no patience. What, he asked, am I going to be doing for the rest of this season? Fighting off relegation? That's not what I signed up for.
Chelsea's bid arrived late in the winter transfer window. The fact that Torres asked for Liverpool to negotiate and did so late, thus making securing an alternative harder still, is one of the reasons why supporters have been so angry with him. But the timing was not really down to Torres -- and while the transfer request ultimately was, even that is not as clear-cut as it appears.
The reason it all happened so late was simple: Chelsea feared that Manchester City would become involved and prompt an auction. It waited until City had signed Edin Dzeko, satisfying the club's striking needs, before making the bid. When Chelsea did, Liverpool told Torres. It would be naive to assume that Torres had no idea that there was a bid coming, no inkling of what was being cooked up. But he could not control it. Liverpool, for its part, could have rejected it and carried on regardless. Instead, it told the striker about the bid. To which he said: "OK, well, let's negotiate then."
Instead, Liverpool went public -- and it was Liverpool, not Torres or Chelsea, which went public -- to say that it had turned down the offer. In doing so, Liverpool forced Torres' hand. And rather than frightening Chelsea away for good, the Reds also forced up the price.
Torres was not sure he would get another chance to move to a club as competitive as Chelsea. He had not initially anticipated the bid this winter. Now he was being presented with an opportunity. If he turned it down, he feared being trapped. Would that train pass through the station again? If he waited until the summer and there still wasn't any optimism at Liverpool, if he had endured a mediocre season, would anyone come in for him then? Would he be stuck? Between a Champions League campaign or a relegation battle, the choice was obvious -- if shortsighted. If Alonso and Mascherano had gone, why shouldn't he?
Torres had hoped for a negotiated departure. He had no interest in forcing an exit that brought flames to his shirt. Alonso remains popular. Going to Chelsea made that impossible for Torres, but he hoped to be tolerated and understood.
Liverpool's owners, on the other hand, saw no reason why they should allow him to leave as a victim. A sale might not be a bad idea -- but on their terms. They were sensitive to the reaction of fans. They needed it to be clear that it was the players' fault, that they had had little choice but to sell, even if they wanted to. They would have preferred to keep him, for sure, but this was not a bad option. By revealing that there was a chance to leave and then taking it away, they flushed him out. They forced him to make the next, potentially damaging move.
That, certainly, was Torres' perception. He felt promises had been broken about investment and that there was little reason for optimism. There was just inertia. He felt that Liverpool should have persuaded him to stay, enthused him with its plans. But it never did. Luis Suárez's arrival was viewed from the outside as exactly that, as a gesture -- a symbol of the club's ambition. But Torres viewed it merely as confirmation that the club was already counting on the money from his sale. That, in fact, given that he no longer appeared committed to the club, Liverpool didn't mind the idea of having him moving on.
Make no mistake, Torres wanted that sale, too, and there was only one way to make it happen. He handed in a transfer request. The cards were on the table.
Ultimately, Torres got what he wanted: a move to Chelsea. But so did Liverpool's owners: They sold an unhappy player, raised £50 million ($80 million) in return, and had themselves a bad guy. They acted quickly and effectively to replace him, reinforcing their status in the eyes of supporters. For just £8 million ($13 million), they looked bold and ambitious where before it had been precisely the apparent lack of ambition and decisiveness -- or, perhaps more accurately, economic capability -- that hastened their demise. There were no U.S. flags burning this time as there had been under George Gillet and Tom Hicks -- the real villains in Liverpool's recent history. Instead, there was a Torres shirt.
Fernando Torres, Liverpool's No. 9. Now Chelsea's. It doesn't really have the same ring to it. He had become such an idol; now he is a fallen one, loathed where once he was loved. In the end, everyone was happy. But deep down, no one was.