It was coming to an end in a fashion that many Atletico Madrid matches have done under Diego Simeone.
As the clock was running down against Eibar, the hosts were ahead by one goal—after coming back from a goal down to take that lead—and as they sought to protect that advantage, it suddenly became apparent they could score again.
Then two substitutes combined.
Luciano Vietto got free down the left flank, and his low ball across the face of goal was turned in at the back post by Fernando Torres.
It was a poacher’s strike, nothing remarkable—something only made possible by his clever movement inside the six-yard box. Yet to the goalscorer, it meant so much.
Because this was February 2016, and Torres had been without a goal for Atletico Madrid for five months, or 19 games—admittedly very few of which he played the full 90 minutes.
This strike against Eibar was his 100th for the club, and the relief was palpable. Like a cricketer perennially stuck in the nervous 90s, he had gone through the full range of emotions.
A specially made shirt was produced—with no indication as to when it was first printed—and after the game, Torres presented it to the 84-year-old Manuel Brinas, the former Atletico scout who first spotted him as a 10-year-old over two decades ago.
Writing in the Guardian, the Spanish football expert Sid Lowe takes up the story:
Torres first met Brinas two decades ago. He was 10 and, accompanied by his dad and his brother Isra, he had turned up – two hours early – for a trial with 200 other kids on the gravel pitches of the Parque de las Cruces in Carabanchel, Atletico territory.
It was not long after Jesus Gil had disbanded the youth system, losing Raul as a result, and now Brinas was trying to rebuild it from scratch.
They played 11-a-side games split into 20-minute halves while the coaches gave marks out of 10.
'Give him 10,' Brinas said when he saw Torres. 'In fact, give him 10 and a bit.'
And while this was Torres’ 100th goal for Atleti, his first had come 15 years earlier, when his club—these days seen at the top end of La Liga and in the latter stages of the Champions League—were languishing down in the Segunda Division.
And in many ways, the story of Atletico during this century reflects the story of Torres.
A Madrid native from the area of Fuenlabrada, the young Torres inherited his family’s love of the club when he was a child, taking a difficult decision that must confront every youngster in Madrid by turning his back on the glamour and almost guaranteed success that is on offer by supporting Real.
An Atleti fan’s life is an altogether more difficult one, but it would be brightened by Torres for much of the 2000s.
The club had been relegated to the Segunda Division during an up and down 1999/2000 season, which saw three managers—Claudio Ranieri, Radomir Antic and Fernando Zambrano—drift through the club, as well as 35 goals in all competitions for Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and places in the Copa del Rey final and the UEFA Cup last 16.
It was a dark time in the club’s history, but in Torres, there was a shining light.
Fans had heard of his goalscoring exploits in the youth teams, and after the club tied him down to a professional contract when he was just 15 years old, he was finally given his first crack at the first team at the tail end of the 2000/01 season, at the age of 17.
He scored in just his second game, against Albacete.
But what Atletico wanted was to get out of the Segunda Division and back into La Liga, something they just missed out on in 2001.
Torres was the man—or boy, really—trusted with the responsibility of leading that charge in the next campaign, and although he wasn’t too prolific in front of goal in 2001/02, his displays showed maturity and leadership, as he led the line with aplomb. The team earned that longed-for promotion after two seasons in the second tier.
El Nino was already an idol before he had even left his teenage years, and when he started playing in the top flight for the first time in his career in 2002, his displays only got better.
Thirteen goals in his debut Primera Division campaign then gave way to 19 league strikes in 2003/04, when he was remarkably named Atletico’s captain at the age of 19.
When he was named skipper, his friends gave him a captain’s armband with what they saw as an inspirational saying on it. "We’ll never walk alone," it said, as detailed by Michael Walker for the Daily Mail, and that would prove to be a prophetic line.
Because—and as has been the case with subsequent Atletico strikers—there was always a feeling that if Torres was going to succeed, then he would have to leave the club at some point, perhaps even if he didn’t actually want to.
His Atletico goals had brought him into the Spain team, and as his profile was rising, so too were Atletico in the table, although the ever-present dangers of Barcelona and Real Madrid were threatening progress all the time.
Now playing European football—albeit in the Intertoto Cup—Torres was broadening his Atletico experience, but there remained a concern he wasn’t quite a prolific forward in the manner of some others in the game at the time.
He managed 16 goals in the 2004/05 Liga season, when the top scorer, Villarreal’s Diego Forlan, got 25. Then it was 13 in 2005/06, when Barcelona’s Samuel Eto’o got 26, and 14 in 2006/07, when Real Madrid’s Ruud van Nistelrooy managed 25.
But in the cases of Eto’o and Van Nistelrooy, they were playing with much better players. Torres wasn’t getting the same type of service, and by the summer of 2007, there was a sense he had given all he could to Atletico.
Liverpool—managed by Rafael Benitez, featuring a couple of Spain internationals in Pepe Reina and Xabi Alonso and having reached two Champions League finals in the previous three years—offered him an escape route, and Torres left for Anfield in the hope of taking his game to new levels.
He was in largely prolific form for Liverpool for three years, scoring 81 times in 142 games overall, shining in the Premier League.
Off-field issues at Liverpool and a lack of progression led to a £50 million move to Chelsea in January 2011, but injuries and poor form there led to a kind of inevitability that he would one day rejoin Atletico Madrid.
That happened, via a strange spell in Milan, in January 2015—initially on a loan deal and now as a permanent member of Diego Simeone’s squad.
And he’s an important member too. Torres’ presence can often allow the team’s star, Antoine Griezmann, and their big summer signing, Kevin Gameiro, to get some valuable rest.
What lies beyond this season for the now-32-year-old forward remains to be seen, but El Nino is right up there with the biggest heroes in Atletico history.
He’s adored by his people and is a symbol of the hope they felt back in the Segunda Division that they now carry into greater challenges.
Ultimately, on a raw human level, that has to be one of the finest things to be.