In September 2008, the collapse of a core inner-working of America’s investment banks sent doomsday-like reverberations across the world’s financial markets. Stocks began to shed percentage points unseen before as panic gripped. In Russia, the extent of the damage would dip and dive in tandem with the price of natural resources, Russia’s economic lynchpin – the same resources that had been made expendable in the fire sale of the 1990s when Roman Abramovic was one of the first oligarchs to the front of the queue. In England, however, where Abramovic flexes his power by proxy with Chelsea, one particular Spanish stock was enjoying a steady climb, consuming his attention.
If a stockbrokers’ cardinal rule for success is to always follow the money, football’s watered down equivalency should be to always follow the goals; a scenario that placed the brightest lighthouse in Europe on Merseyside during the late 2000s. Torres, an established goal-getter, would prick the ears of Abramovic and become another target of his passion for star-gazing.
As world institutions collapsed, the month of September 2008 was instead one of good fortune for Fernando Torres, scoring goals in a game conjoined to the financial world through boardrooms and the shady figures often found inside of them. He netted twice against rivals Everton as Liverpool began the season unbeaten. Despite an earlier injury scare, it was clear that El Nino, the kid from Fuenlabrada in the north-east of Madrid, intended to build on his impressive debut season.
Since Abramovich’s acquisition of the club in 2003, every transfer window has brought with it a Chelsea occupation of tabloid back pages as their owner’s next move is either guessed or greeted. Adrian Mutu and Hernán Crespo had arrived from Italy in 2003. Mateja Kežman and Didier Drogba would be bought in 2004, from PSV Eindhoven and Marseille respectively. It is a pattern of expensive trade that continues today with Diego Costa, Michy Batshuayi and Álvaro Morata all contemporary examples of the Abramovic want for talent – all with varying success rates.
Andriy Shevchenko, bought from AC Milan in 2006 for a then British transfer record of £30 million, was an Abramovic authorised purchase. A decision that contributed to the demise of his relationship with José Mourinho, one that had blossomed early success. A generational talent in Italy, the Ukrainian’s nine goals in the Premier League over just two seasons spoke differently.
Torres would score against Chelsea seven times in Liverpool red, a number that felt much higher during those years but perhaps only inflated in imagination because of the constant bubbling of Chelsea-infused speculation with every passing strike. His home debut in September 2007 against Chelsea flashed a glimpse to the rest of the Premier League of just what Liverpool had under the bonnet.
With Torres reeling away to the side-lines in celebration, it had taken just over a quarter of an hour to open his Anfield account. Steven Gerrard, who had eluded Abramovic’s gravitational pull in 2005, delivered a masterful outside-of-the-boot pass from the centre circle as Torres circled away from his marker to create the space where the ball would catch up with his stride. Pulsating such youthful exuberance, he proceeded to stop the ball dead with the outside of his boot before dragging it past a helpless Tal Ben Haim and caressing a tight finish through the slightest of angles in Petr Čech’s goal; a terrifying blend of pace and awareness to go with a Spanish swivel of the hips, all tied up in a blur of red motion.
Quick to adhere himself to the Kop, Torres had scored 33 goals during his debut season, with the 24 in the Premier League making him the most prolific foreign goalscorer during a debut season in England. The summer saw Liverpool and Torres already dismissing rumours of a £50 million bid from Chelsea, with Abramovic probably keen to strike while the iron was hot – particularly considering a slight regression in form from Drogba.
The Ivorian had scored just 15 goals, less than half of the previous campaign. His discontent towards the handling of the Mourinho dismissal as well as his red card in the Champions League final defeat to Manchester United had coincided with Torres snatching the media’s applause from him. Despite scoring twice in the Champions League semi-final second-leg win over Liverpool, during which Torres scored his third goal against Chelsea, it was entirely plausible that Abramovic’s head had swivelled to Torres, whether right or wrong.
At Euro 2008, Torres scored the only goal of the final to earn himself man of the match against Germany, thus beginning Spain’s threefold of international success over four years. International final stardom and honours could only bring another tick of approval in Abramovic’s scouting notebook.
Returning to his second season, one plagued with constant niggles and stretches on the side line, Torres still spearheaded a Liverpool cavalry charge at the Premier League title, evidenced by a number of big-game performances. Unplayable when on the pitch, El Nino reaffirmed himself as another flashy car needed for Abramovic’s garage collection.
In February 2009, he scored two goals in the final two minutes of normal time to give Liverpool the spoils against a ten-man Chelsea side. The first goal boasted of exceptional movement and instinct as he flashed in front of Alex to offer a glancing header at the front post, courtesy of Fabio Aurelio’s cross, leaving Alex slumped face down in the grass wonderstruck and Čech out of position, unable to align himself in time to make a save. His second settled the game, a straightforward tap-in from a squared ball. Torres had recently placed third in the 2008 FIFA World Player of the Year award. No Chelsea player featured inside of the top ten.
March would give rise to two of Liverpool’s finest performances featuring Torres. The first, a 4-0 win over Real Madrid in the round of 16 return leg, Torres credited on Anfield’s digital scoreboard with the opener. Four days later, the pressure was tightened on Manchester United at Old Trafford as Torres notoriously made Nemanja Vidić sweat, one of few to embarrass the Serbian as he powered past to equalise in a 4-1 win.
An April match against Blackburn Rovers would play host to Torres’ greatest Liverpool goal. Taking a lofted Jamie Carragher ball down on his chest in the far right corner of the 18-yard box, a quick yet almost unnatural readjustment allowed for a half volley that arched over the keeper and into the far corner. More Torres propaganda for Abramovic.
Two months later he scored the opener, but ultimately a consolation, as Chelsea won 3-1 in the first leg of a Champions League quarter-final – the last in a seemingly annual fixture of the two sides meeting in the European knockout stages. Although Chelsea were getting the better of Liverpool on the continent, there was an element of uncertainty when it came to Torres, one that must have irked Abramovic. After all, the Russian has always emphasised preference for success in Europe. Although Torres’ 14 league goals that season was only enough to help to a second placed finish, the high ceiling of success posed by a fully fit Torres was obvious.
A total of 22 goals in his final full season on Merseyside was plenty to keep Torres within Europe’s elite percentile and satisfy any potential buyers, regardless of a drop off in team success. Drogba had reclaimed much of the attention as he scored 29 league goals on his way to the golden boot and a domestic double. Abramovic certainly had the league’s top striker that season, with little need for the eye to wonder. Trouble in the Liverpool ranks began to appear on 4 April 2010 at St Andrews. Liverpool, desperately trying to retain Champions League football with a win against Birmingham City, were locked at a 1-1 stalemate when Benítez hooked his star forward. A perplexed Gerrard watched on as Torres jogged off the pitch sporting a lethargic expression of nothingness. No feeling of vexation towards his manager’s cutthroat decision. The happy camp would begin to unravel from thereon in. Benítez blamed fatigue, others saw a smokescreen.
Torres’ long fair hair was synonymous with his most potent years at Liverpool. Under Roy Hodgson, his short and darkened hair was a direct reflection of those six months. Liverpool was a club in decline, news that hadn’t escaped Torres. For Liverpool supporters, something was evidently missing from their frontman’s game. The spark that had come so naturally was dormant. There was an opportunity for the door to be held open at the Bridge.
It had become clear in the summer that Torres was angling for an exit strategy. He would later reveal that Chelsea had been one interested party in the face of a Liverpool hierarchy that wouldn’t budge. If Abramovic’s interest had shown any sign of waning since that summer enquiry, Torres had one last performance to solidify his value. A dagger straight through the heart of the man he was trying to impress; an unanswered brace that would sink Chelsea 2-0 at Anfield in November of the new decade. The first goal: a clinical sequence that began with the ball being snatched from the air over his left shoulder with the instep of his right boot before hitting the ball into the ground, causing it to subsequently bounce into the net. The second: cutting in from the left at pace and curling one into the far corner under the Anfield lights. A sorry reminder that the risk of dropping off Torres was as equal to the threat of him running in behind. The absence of Drogba for Chelsea due to malaria, meant he was unable to counteract any influence Torres’ goals may have had over Abramovic.
Dialogue was opened between the two clubs in January 2011. A £40 million bid was waved off by Liverpool on the 27th with a Torres transfer request in hand. The media remarked about Torres’ Premier League proven premium, something that had been perhaps a requirement after the Shevchenko betting slip was scrunched up and tossed on the floor. Liverpool were not going to ship one of their last assets to a direct rival for anything less than a record fee, irrespective of any masked eagerness to make the sale. Abramovic would have to push the super-yacht out.
A £50 million deal that made Torres the sixth most expensive player in history was enough to trigger Liverpool’s evaluation on deadline day. Abramovich had a history of getting his way, adding zeros to solve problems. He had famously paid Guus Hiddink’s Russian national team salary just to have him on an interim basis at Chelsea. Getting Torres was a milestone, but not the defining transaction of his career. Nevertheless, for a man so withdrawn from the media, it was Abramovic’s biggest statement in the world of football. Just like in 2006, autocracy at Chelsea had undermined the manager, this time Carlo Ancelotti, who hadn’t envisioned Torres as part of his plans, but would be coerced into doing so.
The false dawn that followed was such a comedown, one that many footballing analysts wouldn’t have predicted. The player that Abramovic had watched at Liverpool appeared defective, lacking any confidence or conviction to his play, and surmised by that miss against Manchester United in September of 2011. After rounding David De Gea, a routine finish mutated into a horror show as Torres missed an open goal wide left, falling to the ground in despair as a hysterical Old Trafford crowd encircled him. The Torres that had bullied Vidić into the same turf two years beforehand appeared lost among the paperwork of that January transfer.
The goals that Abramovic had envisioned never materialised. He had been a victim more so of bad luck than blunder. For the man who once rented an apartment inside the Kremlin, Stamford Bridge had become his home. His executive box seat that the camera would pan to after a goal went in presented a window into Abramovic’s in-game emotion. He celebrated when they scored and shifted awkwardly every time they conceded. With such a vested interest, it is understandable why he indulged in one of the best forwards of previous seasons. To a multi-billionaire, £50 million wasted is little more than a snag on the line in exchange for peace of mind. Oh well, it didn’t work; I doubt Abramovic loses much sleep. The risk of leaving Torres on Merseyside to add to his tally against Chelsea would have been ten times as painful.