text by Yoichi Igawa
After his retirement from professional football, Fernando Torres has returned to Spain but still remains closely connected with Sagan Tosu, his last club, as an advisor. On 23rd August 2019, he played his very last game against Vissel Kobe, in which his friends Andres Iniesta and David Villa, saw off their World Cup winning teammate with a goal rout (Kobe beat Tosu 6-1). Though Torres and his family went back to Spain immediately after that, he wants to “help Tosu, which has huge potential” and “try to come to Japan as much as I can” to advise on training, youth development, and other areas.
In late November 2019, we had the chance to talk when Torres came back to Japan for the first time since his retirement. He visited Mitsuru Murai, the chairman of the J.LEAGUE, and in his presence, I asked Torres the reason he decided to come to Japan to conclude his professional career.
“When the contract with Atletico Madrid expired,” Torres began, “I was thinking of the next destination and, to be honest, Japan was not my first choice at the time. There was one guy who urged me to play in Japan though, and because of him I started to think about the J.LEAGUE and researched Japan. When I asked my friends who knew about Japan, everybody said it is fantastic country – respect, kind people, high privacy.
“Then I started to watch the J.LEAGUE and realised the standard is high. And my family told me it was probably best to go to Japan due to the quality of life and its football. We knew, however, it would be a challenge as a person and a footballer because the culture and lifestyle are very different from that we had become accustomed to. Looking back now, it was a good decision. I played in the J.LEAGUE for about a year and finished my career here. Everything went well and I am happy now.”
Then, what was his first impression of Japan and the lifestyle?
“It was a completely different lifestyle from what I had experienced before,” he said. “If you compare life in Europe and Japan, it is totally different – culture, custom, the way of thinking etc. For example, I was very surprised to see elementary school kids go to school by themselves. My children made a lot of friends in Japan and learned important values here, which I think they will keep in their minds.
“We’ve also discovered many things in this country. I traveled with my family to Miyajima, Takachiho, Fukuoka and so on, and found many beautiful places. It was nice to visit serene temples and be tranquil, something which is difficult to do in big cities. Our days in Japan were very positive. That’s why I want to keep my contacts here and come back as much as possible.”
Torres’ idol in his youth was famously Tsubasa Ozora of Captain Tsubasa (called Oliver in the Spanish version of the animation, Oliver y Benji). Was the popular Japanese show another reason he came to Japan? Actually, it was even more fundamental than that for the World Cup winner.
“It was not the reason for coming to Japan,” Torres said, “it was the reason I started playing football. When I was five or six years old, I played football on the streets, almost no television channels showed football matches. And very young children didn’t have many chances to go to the stadium either. Then came Oliver.
“We were watching it so passionately every time. The story goes that one guy moves to another place where he makes friends, gets used to his new surroundings, and kicks the ball everyday. Oliver faces many obstacles and overcomes them all, becoming a professional footballer, being selected for the national team, and playing at big tournaments. The story gave me a dream to become a professional footballer, and taught me what it is like. In other words, it gave me hope. I loved that cartoon.”
Listening intently his words, Murai added that superstars such as Torres, Iniesta, and Villa have inspired many players in the J.LEAGUE.
“Japanese players have learned many things from the World Cup winners,” Murai said. “Playing together in the league means living together, so they have surely gained a lot. Also, the likes of Torres and Iniesta grew up in the academies of their respective clubs, so people in youth development should have learned a great deal too.”
Fernando Torres’ classy winner in the Euro 2008 final opened the door to the so-called Spanish golden era. After becoming top scorer at the tournament, he and his national teammates completed the maiden international treble by winning the World Cup in 2010 as well as Euro 2012. Needless to say, he is a genuinely top footballer.
During his long elite career, Torres has faced many strong opponents. Among others, he remembers the tough defenders the most.
“In the Premier League, Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand of Manchester United, and Chelsea’s John Terry were the hardest ones for me,” Torres recalled. “I was very lucky to have good opponents throughout my career and it is difficult to choose just one. But if I have to, it was Carles Puyol for Barcelona.
“He was not only a tough defender but also a fair player, so I liked to play against him very much. Defenders like him gave me plenty of motivation and I prepared myself properly every time I faced him. It was also huge pleasing when I managed to score after breaking free of his tight marking.”
In the J.LEAGUE too, there are several defenders who troubled him.
“(Tomoaki) Makino at Urawa Reds was the most impressive defender in the league for me,” Torres continued. “He was a tough opponent but we always exchanged nice words after games, and sometimes talked off the pitch too.”
Before coming to Japan, Torres spent a lot of time watching J.LEAGUE matches, and he has a few favourite players. Predictably enough, they are skillful midfielders similar to those from Spain.
“Kengo Nakamura from Kawasaki Frontale,” Torres said without hesitation. “His playing style is attractive and I loved watching it. Receiving the ball between the lines, making beautiful turns, and then playing sharp, penetrative passes to trouble the opponents – I like that and can watch it for a whole game.”
Torres, of course, also acknowledges Takefusa Kubo, who is currently playing for Mallorca on loan from Real Madrid in Spain.
“Now he is having a great experience in Spain,” Torres said of the Japanese teenager. “Certainly, he’s got huge talent and potential and I hope he will become the player he should. I think it’s possible because he is clever and humble. I can see that in his interviews. He already knows about Spain and can speak Spanish after previously spending many years in Barcelona’s academy.
“I think he has everything to succeed in Spain. If he plays consistently, his talent will develop for sure. There is a bright future ahead for him.”
Having taken on a new role as an advisor, Torres has some suggestions for Japanese football, especially concerning youth development.
“There are many good players in Japan,” Torres said. “I’ve seen some great talents as well, but they tend to fail to develop due to improper coaching. They have to coach the right way, because those kids like football and want to be professionals. Coaches have to teach not only training but also daily life and behaviour. I’ve seen some young professional players who still have a childish mentality. That has to be changed in order for Japanese football to get better. Football is more competition than entertainment. They must understand this.”
For the J.LEAGUE, here are his honest impressions.
“I think there are teams that don’t meet the players’ ability,” Torres said. “Having a few great players is not enough to build a good team. It could perhaps win a trophy, but could also lead to relegation the following season. That has happened in Japan many times. In football, consistency is the key. It’s very important. If your team has less quality but has unity and consistency, you could win the league.”
“Unfortunately, our aim was only to avoid relegation in my first season in the J.LEAGUE. When I arrived, Sagan Tosu were in the relegation zone. It was a tough situation but the players, staff, and fans didn’t give up, and we achieved our goal for the season.”
Just as Fernando Torres said, Tosu were in danger of relegation when he joined them midway through the 2018 season. It took four games for him to record his first win in the league and four more matches for the World Cup winner to notch his maiden goal. In the game against Gamba Osaka in August, he scored one and set up two, leading Tosu to a 3-0 win. Although it was one of the best performances of his time in the J.LEAGUE, it is another match he remembers most.
“I will never forget the game against Yokohama F. Marinos in November,” Torres said. “I think that is my highlight in the J.LEAGUE. Yokohama opened the scoring in the first half and if it finished that way, we were going to be relegated. But once we scored in the second half, the atmosphere in the stadium changed completely. The supporters were getting louder and louder, started believing again, and I saw the light of hope in their eyes. I remember the scene very clearly.
“Then I scored the winner. Many people were overjoyed and some of them were even crying. Just before that, they were so anxious about the possible bad result and so disappointed, so I understood their delight. Of course my teammates and I were feeling the same. I will never forget the happy faces on the people. I think that game represented what football is. We experienced various emotions in one game. That is football -- football draws out the emotion.”
In the end, Tosu avoided relegation on the final day of the season after a draw against Kashima Antlers, but Torres’ winner in the game against Yokohama was crucial. While Torres only scored three times in 2018 and twice in 2019, some of his performances were vital for the club.
J.LEAGUE chairman Mitsuru Murai was listening to Torres speak and commented upon the impression he made in the league.
“I was impressed by Torres’ presence up front – it was as if he was calling to his teammates, ‘Pass the ball to me!’” Murai said. “I felt his aura. Maybe it sounds like a cliché, but I did. All the people in the stadium were watching Torres. He is a player you are drawn to.”
Still involved with Tosu as an adviser, Torres envisages more foreign players in the J.LEAGUE in the future, especially from his home country.
“I would like to share my experience in Japan, such as the quality of life and the competitive league,” Torres said. “There are many kind people, good food, and a beautiful culture in this country. Also, every player can improve in this league, and due to its high level, some players may see it as a step up towards the big European leagues. I think a lot of foreign players will come, especially my compatriots because Spanish players like myself were able to smoothly adjust to living here.”
While nodding next to him, Murai also sent a message to foreign footballers around the world.
“Though Europe and South America are the epicentre of football, Asia should be next to them,” Murai said. “There is a huge population and room for development in the region, with Japan and the J.LEAGUE playing leading role.
“Although it’s very basic, all the clubs pay wages on time to their players, the stadiums are very safe, and there has never been match fixing in the 25-year history of the league. Given the fact that the Japan national team has played in six consecutive final tournaments of the World Cup, we can also say that youth development has improved in the country as a whole. All in all, we have good fundamentals. Therefore, we would like to welcome not only top-level players but also developing youngsters from overseas -- please knock on the door!”
Torres also talked about the current position of the J.LEAGUE in world football.
“Big names such as Andres (Iniesta) and David (Villa) helped to attract attention for the J.LEAGUE from all over the world,” he said. “I think players are aware of that and it is a good stage for their next step. And again, you can enjoy a fantastic life here in Japan. I recommend those young players who hope to transfer to Europe to come and play in the J.LEAGUE for that reason.”
Perhaps this is also a message to Japanese players – they should aim to play in the national team and/or European leagues beyond the J.LEAGUE. Murai hopes so too.
“While more foreign players are coming to the J.LEAGUE, I want to see more Japanese players going abroad,” he said. “Such interactions should make Japan football better and better.”