45,000 people sat in the Estadio Vicente Calderon on the 4th of January awaiting the unveiling of Atlético Madrid’s latest acquisition. The day before, in that same stadium, some of those fans witnessed Atlético begin the new year in style, beating Levante 3-1 and ending the day tied for second in La Liga, just one point behind rivals Real Madrid. Fans and management alike wanted a player to bolster their ranks, to help maintain the momentum they would need to defy the odds and win their second consecutive La Liga title. Fernando Torres walked out onto the pitch to thunderous applause.
One gets the impression that Torres is limping home after too many years in the wilderness. He grew up in Madrid, joining Atlético’s youth system at age 11, debuting at 17 and earning the captaincy by 19. His teammates and fans lovingly referred to him at El Niño. It was by all accounts a mutually beneficial relationship; the club had a reliable goalscorer that helped them secure their place in La Ligam, following their 2002 promotion from the second division, and the club’s support helped him earn a name for himself that would go on to inspire a big money move to Liverpool, where his talents would peak. He would score over 80 goals in four seasons for his second club, earning a third place finish behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi in FIFA’s 2008 World Player of the Year ballots in the process. In recent times Torres’ career has been less than stellar, however. A recordsetting fee of £50 million paid by Chelsea for his signature was always going to be somewhat difficult to justify, but few could have imagined how far Torres’ star would fall. The goals dried up. He was relegated first to the bench, then subject to the relative indignity of a loan move to AC Milan. Arrangements were made, however, and Torres was finally sent home to Madrid at the beginning of January.
What Atlético actually expect from Torres is up for debate. He will certainly play, as he did against Real in the Copa del Rey game this past Wednesday, and perhaps back into more familiar environs he will actually thrive. His return to the club has little to do with goals though. Atlético, led magnificently by another former star player, Diego Simeone, made headlines worldwide last year as much for their La Liga trophy as the means they took to get there. The entire team was built for less than the cost of just one of Real or Barcelona’s stars. Simeone’s tactical nous have combined with a fine mixture of both veterans and youth to create a genuine contender, one that can continue to compete even after losing its best players to bigger clubs year over year. Torres’ return to the club fits nicely into that winning formula. He might be worse for wear, but the real grab is the morale boost he represents. Beginning and ending a career at one club is borderline poetic, even if half the intervening years were spent abroad. Forward Antoine Griezmann, only at the club for six months at this point, quickly understood Torres’ symbolic value. He celebrated both of his goals in the win over Levante by mimicking the archer’s stance once made famous by a younger Fernando Torres.
Three days before Torres’ presentation to his adoring fans in Madrid, Harry Kane scored two goals and assisted another against Tottenham Hotspurs’ cross city rivals Chelsea. The first, a slaloming run that first saw Kane take on Chelsea’s midfield then almost the entire backline, was by the striker’s own admission his best goal to date. Kane grew up just north of London and joined Tottenham’s youth academy at the age of 16. This season was the first he could expect to be regularly featured on the team, but prior to this he had been loaned out to several clubs and represented England at all levels of its youth system. At only 21, he’s secured his spot at the point of Spurs’ starting XI with a combination of goals and savvy movement. He is quickly becoming one of the outstanding players of the English Premier League season, and one gets the impression it could just be the beginning. He stands poised on what could be a remarkable career.
Beyond his obvious promise, what makes Kane’s story so noteworthy is that it began not too far from Tottenham itself. Since the local boy arrived at Spurs it seemed his fate was sealed. He’s succeeded at each level, progressing through the academy ranks and loan moves patiently until he was given his chance. Now, the fans in the stands sing his name, chanting and calling him “one of their own”. It could be that he’s becoming not just another player on Tottenham’s payroll, but a part of Tottenham itself. How is it, though, that a story such as Kane’s feels so rare? How many players have made their name with the same club they supported as a boy? Torres, certainly. Francesco Totti of AS Roma is the most impressive example. At over 20 years of service, it’s not hard to imagine Totti going on to becoming a vital part of Roma’s coaching system when (or if) he chooses to retire.
The soccer economy has run out of room for such careers over the past two decades. Either talented youth is stripped away by bigger clubs at an early age, or late bloomers only shine after one or two moves to different clubs. There are signs that this might be changing, however. The inflated transfer market has forced those clubs not among Europe’s elite to look back into more traditional ways of acquiring talent. Kane is the beneficiary not only of a significant amount of latent ability, but also the willingness of former Spurs coach Tim Sherwood and current coach Mauricio Pochettino to emphasize youth. The Spurs team that walked out to meet Chelsea on New Years Day featured no less than five players that have been with the club since they were 18 or younger. It is not hard to imagine this trend continuing, especially if clubs can produce talent at the level of Harry Kane.
Can the homegrown movement, if indeed that’s what this is, challenge the money of the transfer market? It seems unlikely, at least in the short term. Few clubs, and few players, can resist a cash grab from those wealthy clubs that lack the foresight to properly develop their own talent. Francesco Totti is the product of another age. Kane will be sold, hopefully later rather than sooner, and with any luck Spurs will reinvest the proceeds back into their burgeoning youth system. The cycle will continue anew. If, by some chance, a club such as Spurs can find their way to glory, it won’t be through buying the best and brightest, but rather by adopting the strategy Atlético use triumphantly against two of the biggest clubs in the world. Know your strengths, buy low, sell high, nurture that which is given to you, and welcome back your prodigal sons with open arms. It doesn’t always generate the flashiest headlines, but it might just have its own rewards. In the end the old money of the Manchester Uniteds and Real Madrids will continue to be able to afford trophies, but it is increasingly obvious from which fields their harvests are sowed.
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