February 17, 2012 8:45 pm

The tragedy of Fernando Torres

Chelsea’s £50m striker has fallen prey to the malaise that every sportsman dreads: a catastrophic and inexplicable loss of form. But why does this happen to top athletes and how can they recover?

You’ve been bought by a big club for a big fee. Your job is to score goals. One game passes, two, three, four and you haven’t scored. Five, six: still nothing. The goalposts seem to get narrower every game. Your coach comes up to you and says he has total faith in you, which is worse, because now you know that he knows you’re playing crap. You play at an away stadium and the rival fans sing, ‘What a waste of money!’ and the awful thing is that you suspect they are right.

“Then your own fans begin to mutter and you know they are right too. They become your conscience. You don’t want to leave the house to go shopping, much less to a pub, for fear of what people might say to you or of the looks you might get – scornful or, worse, pitying. You hide off the pitch and you start hiding on it. You stop looking for the ball, you drift off to the wings, shunning the goalscoring positions for fear that if a chance comes your way, you’ll fluff it. Your mum calls, ‘How are you, darling, all right?’ And you know she knows too … ”

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This is not Fernando Torres talking; not the Spanish goal-scorer bought by Chelsea for a record English transfer fee of £50 million just over a year ago, since when he has succumbed to a malaise every professional competitor dreads – a calamitous and inexplicable loss of form. Torres scored just five goals in his first 12 months, at a team that has won nothing since his arrival. He has become the epitome of failure in sport.

No, Torres does not want to talk right now, his agent told me. Not in public. The person quoted here is Michael Robinson, a retired footballer who knows Torres and who, by reliving sensations from his own past, offers a likely glimpse of the torments that have assailed the 27-year-old Spaniard for the greater part of these past 12 months. Robinson was recalling what he himself went through after he was bought in 1983 by Torres’ previous club, Liverpool, for what was then the impressive sum of £250,000. His job was also to score goals but Robinson, who ended his footballing career in Spain, went eight games without finding the back of the net. Then he did score, and then he scored again, and again, and in his first season Liverpool won the game’s most coveted “double”, the English championship and the European Cup.

Fernando Torres at Atlético Madrid, where he made his first team debut at 17©AFP

Fernando Torres at Atlético Madrid, where he made his first team debut at 17

No such luck for Torres. Nothing in his career foreshadowed such a slump. Signed by Atlético Madrid, one of Spain’s six biggest clubs, when he was 11, he made good on his early promise by making his debut in the first team at the age of 17. Mature far beyond his years, he was named team captain two years later, when he also made his debut for the Spanish national team. That was in 2003. Four years later, Liverpool signed him. Adapting admirably to the rough and tumble of Premier League football, he quickly came to be regarded by the English cognoscenti as the complete centre forward: tall, lithe, elegant, whippet fast, positionally canny, strong in the air and as lethal a goal-scorer with his left foot as with his right. In June 2008 he scored the winning goal for Spain against Germany in the final of the European championships. In January 2011, fatefully, he left Liverpool for Chelsea.

Fernando Torres©AFP

Celebrating with Spain after scoring the winning goal against Germany in the Euro 2008 final

Since then, the dreaded chant “What a waste of money!” has reverberated around every away stadium where he has shown his face. The newspapers shriek “Torres: the worst transfer ever!” and remind him almost daily of how many minutes – over a thousand by mid-February – he has gone without scoring. The Chelsea fans have stuck stubbornly by him, which Torres has said is his biggest incentive to start scoring again. But that is a burden too. As for his coach, André Villas-Boas, a recent remark might have sounded to Torres’ ears more like a kiss of death than a vote of confidence. “We still believe in the player,” he said. “But he is taking his time.”

Michael Robinson©Getty

Michael Robinson: 'Whatever I went through, it has to be a hundred times worse for Torres, poor chap'

Michael Robinson, now a popular sports personality on Spanish TV, winced when I asked him to try and put himself in Torres’ boots. “Whatever I went through,” he replied, “it has to be a hundred times worse, poor chap.”

Things began to fall apart for Torres after he underwent a knee operation in January 2010, while still at Liverpool. Not fully match fit, he forced himself to play in the World Cup in South Africa in June that year. Spain were the favourites to win the competition and he was by far the most globally celebrated player in the team. Many anticipated that he would be the star of the tournament. He wasn’t. He failed to score and he played miserably. On as a substitute towards the end of the final, which Spain won, he had to leave the pitch within minutes with a groin injury. Torres hobbled around the pitch during the post-match celebration but he wore what seemed to be a wan smile on his face. He knew, as well as everybody in the world watching, that Spain had been crowned champions not because of him, but despite him.

The resumption of the English season in August saw no improvement but his reputation remained sufficiently solid for Chelsea not only to weigh in for him five months later with that record-breaking fee, but to pay him a salary of £10 million a year, very close to the amount earned by the game’s two outstanding superstars, Lionel Messi of Barcelona and Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid. What this amounts to is that in the 12 months following his move to Chelsea he scored at a rate of £2 million per goal. The five goals he scored in this period stand in reproachful contrast to the 20 he had averaged per season at Liverpool.

Fernando Torres signs for Chelsea in 2011©AFP

Wrong move? Torres signs for Chelsea in 2011 for a record £50m, since when he has rarely scored

One moment this season, seared into the memory of every Chelsea supporter and of all football fans with compassion in their hearts, captured his plight in excruciating technicolour. It was a match last September away to Manchester United. Chelsea were losing 3-1 but were playing well: the feeling was that they could go on and win the game. Torres found himself with the ball at his feet and only the goalkeeper to beat, which he did, rounding him with panache. Now all he had to do was tuck the ball into an empty net. His miscue was as horrible as it was inexplicable. At the very moment when he had the easiest of chances to put his team back into the game, he did what in golf they call a “shank”: the ball shot off the outside of his left foot, missing the post by a full three feet. Torres appeared instantly to grasp the enormity of his failure and the global resonance those video images would have. In an unusual display of despair – he is the most impassive of footballers normally – he dropped to his knees and sank his head into the turf. The Manchester United fans behind him howled with laughter.

The malady to which Torres has so spectacularly succumbed is familiar to all people who play sports but is far more keenly felt by those who do so for a living. Those likely to be worst hit are the ones who play individual games, such as tennis or golf, or occupy positions in a team where they find themselves under special scrutiny, such as the taker of the penalty kicks in rugby, the star batsman in a cricket team, the striker or goalkeeper in football. Watching a once mighty sports professional lose form is always a grimly fascinating spectacle, all the more so because it is something with which everybody, to some degree, is able to identify. We all feel Torres’ pain because we all fear the notion of things going catastrophically haywire in our working lives.

Two American sports psychologists I spoke to agreed that there was something universally recognisable in the Torres syndrome. But neither thought that there was any walk of life where the pressure was felt with greater intensity than in top-level sport. John Murray, who defines himself as a specialist in helping sports personalities remove anxiety and build confidence, suggested that a comparison might be made with air traffic controllers and Wall Street day traders. “But even they are not affected to the degree that, say, a top golfer is when he has to make that big putt, knowing the world is watching,” Murray said. William Wiener, an expert in cognitive behavioural therapy, said that all people struggled at times with “performance anxiety” but that the problem was magnified immeasurably in the case of a “very highly paid athlete who is very much under the miscroscope and who, let’s not forget, is invariably a very young man.”

. . .

Joel Stransky©Popperfoto

Joel Stransky, World Cup winner with South Africa in 1995, whose form fell off a cliff the following year

Joel Stransky was the same age as Fernando Torres is now when, one afternoon in 1995, he faced a degree of pressure unimaginable to anyone but the most hardened of sportsmen. That year he was the fly half and penalty kicker in the South African rugby team that won the World Cup against New Zealand, a game that was much more than a game, on which the dreams of national unity of Nelson Mandela and an entire nation were pinned. South Africa won and Stransky kicked all his team’s points. Since then he has gone on to become a successful corporate businessman, operating today as CEO of Hertz, South Africa. As someone who suffered a crushing loss of form on the rugby field a year after winning the World Cup, he is in as good a position as any to compare the pressures of sports with that of the business world. For Stransky, it is no contest.

“In business you need confidence and decision-making ability, sure,” he said. “You can be afflicted by a fear of failure. But you’re more fortunate than you are in sport because you have time to make up your mind and because if you’ve lost some of your self-belief, you can bounce ideas off colleagues. In sport you’re on your own and there are two elements which make it all so much harder, the mental and the physical. You have to make a decision as a fly half whether you should kick or pass, as a striker in football whether to shoot or pass, in tennis whether to drive the ball cross-court or diagonally, and that – in a split second – is hard enough. But then the element of physical co-ordination comes into play: you have to execute. And that makes it much more difficult, because you might make what is in retrospect the wrong decision yet get the physical side of it right, or vice versa.”

Why did he lose form in 1996, having passed the supreme test a year earlier? Stransky was perplexed at the time but believes that hindsight (a commodity not available to Torres) has allowed him at least a partial explanation. Some of it had to do with unexpected difficulties that accompanied the arrival of his first baby. There were also some other problems off the field on which he did not expand plus, perhaps most important, a sense of which he was unaware back then of having let the glories of 1995 go to his head, leading to “a lack of that burning desire you need to play at your best and win”. “What it all shows,” he said, “is how fragile the mind can be, how subconscious elements can combine to trigger problems where, on past form and experience, they rationally should not exist.”

The mysteries of form may reside in the subconscious but it also appears to be true that the problem is worsened by thinking too much and, as a likely consequence, trying too hard. On this point Stransky, the two American sports psychologists and also a couple of other people I spoke to, in the football and tennis worlds, were all in agreement.

Santiago Solari©Getty

Santiago Solari, former Argentine international: 'You have a bad game … get anxious … you feel as if you’re walking down a step'

Santiago Solari, a recently retired Argentine international footballer who played for Atlético Madrid and Real Madrid, said that all players went through a period when their form declined, though he was quick to point out that in his case it had never occurred on a scale comparable to Fernando Torres. “There are times,” Solari said, “when you feel as if you are an unstoppable phenomenon of nature. There’s a happy convergence of the mental and the physical in your game and your confidence just grows and grows. It all seems so natural. But then you have a bad game, and then another one and you start to get anxious, and you feel each time you go out and play as if you’re walking down a step, with one brick, and then another one, weighing you down. Before you know it you’ve walked down so many steps and the bricks have piled up to such a point that you feel as if you were lying buried under a big building.”

Francis Roig is a coach of Spain’s all-conquering Davis Cup team and also second coach to the no less triumphant Rafa Nadal. Loss of form is an affliction especially common in tennis, Roig said. “It’s tremendous the importance confidence has on your game. It’s tremendous also how a rival can smell that fear in you, how he loses the respect he might once have had for you, beating you when before nine times out of 10 you’d have beaten him. Look at Jim Courier, who was number one in the world for two years – “Big Jim”, they called him – and then one day it all went; he fell to number 60 and never got back. A sort of psychosis possessed him, a desperate need to return to being the player he had been, and he never overcame it.”

Jim Courier©Getty

Jim Courier ranked number one in the world in 1992 and 1993 – 'and then one day it all went'

What should he have done? “One way to recover your form, though there is no magic cure I am aware of, is not to dwell on the negative aspects of your game, to forget that and focus on the things you’ve always done well in your career going back to childhood.” Roig, a keen football fan, sees Fernando Torres as an extreme case who has succumbed to “a dynamic in which everything you did before effortlessly becomes impossible, and then you try harder, working double as much, but things only get worse.”

“My guess,” said William Wiener of Torres, picking up on Solari’s and Roig’s points, “is that he is overthinking each move, that something in his mental processes is not as relaxed as it once was.” John Murray, who before becoming a sports psychologist was a professional tennis player, also attaches blame to “overthinking” and counsels that for Torres to overcome what he describes as “catastrophic performance anxiety” he must try to play as he did when he was a child, “happily, for fun”. “My hypothesis,” said Murray, who has addressed loss of form problems with leading American sporstmen, “is that his confidence is shattered, that his anxiety is such that the harder he tries, the worse it gets. And he may also be in denial, which is an especially horrible thing when the whole world knows what’s going on. He needs help.”

. . .

How willing is Torres to admit what would seem to be the screamingly obvious, that he is undergoing a crisis of confidence? Not very, judging from what both his agent and a close friend of his told me. At best, there appears to be some ambiguity on the matter. His friend, who preferred not to be identified in print, said he had seen him recently in Madrid with his family and he had looked “neither torn nor pained”. “He is tranquilo. He accepts what’s happening as something normal in football and believes it has to do with Chelsea’s style of play,” the friend said. Besides, the friend added, he had been playing really well since the start of the new year and hit the bar with a fantastic overhead kick that, had it gone in, “would have been goal of the season”. Nevertheless, the friend did seem to suggest the possibility of something going on in Torres’ mind too when he proposed that perhaps Liverpool had “laid the evil eye on him”. “It’s tough, sure. He spent eight games as a substitute at the end of last year. That had never happened to him, not even as a child.”

It is hard to imagine that that experience would not have sapped his confidence but Torres’ agent, Antonio Sanz, insisted on the same line, for the most part, as the unnamed friend. “The reading I make of all this, and that we understand is the right one, is that it is purely a footballing question,” Sanz said. “Two coaches at Chelsea in the year Fernando has been there have not helped either. It has obliged him in each case to adapt to different styles of play from the one under which he had thrived at Liverpool.” This obviates the fact that he has not adapted to the style of play of the Spanish national team either: he is in grave danger of being dropped for the European Championships finals in the summer. Yet Sanz appeared to be adamant. “What we’re not seeing are goals, sure, but physically he is the same as he ever was and mentally there is no problem.”

Fernando Torres©Alan Mahon

Torres in a publicity shot for Nike, January 2009. He had recently been nominated for Fifa World Player of the Year

Sanz insists Torres is a very grounded young man, as often appears to be the case with Spanish football players compared to their English counterparts. Much of it probably has to do with the tightness of families in Spain, particularly strong in the case of Torres who is happily married, Sanz said, with two small children. “Fernando is an intelligent, cerebral man who is neither corrupted by success nor destroyed by failure. His family is his refuge and he is not the kind of person who likes to show himself off at prize-giving ceremonies or parties. What he most likes is to visit his parents in Madrid or be quietly at home in Cobham with his wife and kids.”

Being cerebral and shunning the celebrity glare may not help. Being cerebral, he is more likely to succumb to the overthinking curse; and as Wiener suggested, his reclusiveness may be more counter-productive than Torres might imagine. “Often athletes who thrive under the spotlight have the ability to turn off the fans’ abusive chants or the criticism in the media, removing what might have been a big weight from their shoulders,” Wiener said.

Cristiano Ronaldo, a rampant goal-scorer season after season, offers a case in point. “He loves the celebrity life and needs public attention, from whatever quarter. He seems to be inspired and motivated by criticism, turning it to his advantage where others would be crushed by it.”

As for Lionel Messi, not just the world’s best player but a candidate for best of all time, he is no party-going fashion model, like Ronaldo, but has the advantage of not being a deep thinker and, above all, of seemingly playing the game as if he were still in the schoolyard.

For Torres, whose face (save for that calamity against Manchester United) betrays nothing on the field, football has not seemed much fun for a long time. Santiago Solari, though as well disposed to him as a fellow professional can be, doubts he will recover his best form. “When a player has been at the peak of form in his career and then goes downhill … well, I’ve never seen a player return to his best in those circumstances,” he said. Wiener, on the other hand, has faith that Torres will stage a comeback. “My prediction is that he’s not done yet,” he said. “That level of athletic talent is hard to suppress.” The other psychologist I talked to, John Murray, also believes he can recover his form, but only if he opens up to someone like him.

How about Torres turning to psychological help? I asked his agent Antonio Sanz. Instead of the expected rebuff, Sanz said Torres might be open to the idea and would examine it if it were proposed by his club. That might be the last card left for Torres to play, unless he were suddenly to recover his form – by the very same mysterious processes through which he lost it.

John Carlin’s book ‘Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation’ was the basis for the film ‘Invictus’. To comment on this article, please email magazineletters@ft.com

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