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Atletico's Fernando Torres, right, fights for the ball against Barcelona's Jordi Alba during a Copa del Rey Quarterfinal match between FC Barcelona and Atletico Madrid

Atletico's Fernando Torres, right, fights for the ball against Barcelona's Jordi Alba during a Copa del Rey Quarterfinal match between FC Barcelona and Atletico Madrid

AP

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Atletico's Fernando Torres, right, fights for the ball against Barcelona's Jordi Alba during a Copa del Rey Quarterfinal match between FC Barcelona and Atletico Madrid

Fernando Torres came off at half time at Camp Nou on Wednesday night as Atletico Madrid lost the first leg of their Copa del Rey quarter-final. It brought an end to the first wave of talk about Torres' rejuvenation since his return to Spain, but that talk will return if he scores when Atletico play Barcelona again on Wednesday night.

Even if Torres' recovery lasts no longer than the hour against Real Madrid when he scored twice, then it is a sprinkling of happiness in a career which has been as spectacular in decline as it was during the years when Torres climbed to the top, scoring 65 league goals in 102 league games for Liverpool.

Life is tragedy full of joy, the man said and the joy for Torres in scoring in that game may bring relief for the way his career has gone in the past four years.

His story is, in sporting terms, a tragedy, although a sporting tragedy doesn't need time for it to be considered funny.

On Torres' return, his coach Diego Simeone said that all he needed was a hug and that may turn out to be true, but Torres could need more than a hug. Simeone and Brendan Rodgers have very little in common but the Atletico coach's comments could be an unfortunate echo of Rodgers' statement that Mario Balotelli simply needed to be treated like a man as he glowed in the aftermath of Liverpool's victory at White Hart Lane, before Balotelli proved that he was beyond even Rodgers' remarkable powers of reinvention.

Torres is not Balotelli, which is his sporting tragedy, as he is a man of substance. His decline has been so severe that it's hard to believe it can be arrested by a hug, even if Simeone is a manager with immense gifts.

Torres has suffered a collapse that is both physical and psychological, a collapse that belongs in the pantheon alongside David Duval and Tiger Woods, although Tiger has involved other factors which are missing in this story.

Tiger had his sex addiction, a compulsion that is yet to be considered deserving of public sympathy, especially in Tiger's case where he appeared so reluctant to be viewed sympathetically, clunking through his public apology and giving the impression that if he had been left to his exhausting - yet strangely effective - methods of unwinding, he wouldn't have endured the unravelling of his golf game.

There is no compulsion in the Torres story. There is no drink or drugs that could explain the collapse and earn some public sympathy. There is no excess that has us asking where did it all go wrong.

Instead there is an extremely wealthy and polite man who has quietly gone about the business of collapse. In short, there is no suffering.

At least there is no public suffering and only the occasional glimpse of the interior life when another chance is missed, when the body doesn't respond as it once did, as it did such a short time ago.

His signing for Chelsea this time four years ago was hailed as a triumph for the club and at that moment, he seemed certain to be as potent a force as he had been for Liverpool before the experience soured for him.

But it turned out that hell was not other people and he may have been among the last to realise that, especially as he would eventually be reported as having told his Chelsea team-mates how good things were at Liverpool.

Clearly the loss of pace was the key physical factor in his decline but his reaction to the decline, the loss of his self-belief alongside his acceleration, made everything worse.

If he felt the need to flee Liverpool, he arrived at a club which was a breeding ground for his insecurity, especially in the two years between the departure of Carlo Ancelotti and the return of Mourinho.

If Torres just needed a hug, he was unlikely to find it at a place which thrived in its ruthless dysfunction in those years before Mourinho returned. Once Mourinho returned, Torres was never going to find unconditional love.

Instead he was exiled to Milan before Atletico moved in and brought an end to the worst of times.

Football, too, can appear polarised, as if it exists now entirely to delight in the misery of others. Torres' decline has allowed him to become an easy punchline for jokers as witnessed again last week when Craig Burley tattooed Torres on his arm as a forfeit after predictions he made about the striker turned out to be false.

On the unreliable forum that is Twitter, debate can sometimes make YouTube commenters look like the Algonquin Round Table as they strain to demonstrate their eternal love of club by being as abusive as possible.

Viewed through that filter, the neutral or disinterested observer has disappeared and it can also appear that there is no room for sympathy.

That is not the real world and Torres, of course, is not a dud, he is more important than that. He flirted with greatness. There is something of the story of Joe Di Maggio on his honeymoon with Marilyn Monroe about Torres, especially when Torres is mocked as nothing but a hack.

Marilyn was asked during their honeymoon in Tokyo if she would make a morale-boosting trip to the US troops in Korea. She returned to tell Di Maggio that she had appeared in front of 100,000 servicemen on several occasions. "You never heard such cheering," she told her husband. "Yes I have," Di Maggio said.

Torres has heard the cheering, he has felt the stands rock in his honour and he has seen the look of apprehension in a defender's eyes as he moved towards them and, almost simultaneously, moved away from them, functioning at a level of lethalness very few can understand.

Simeone said all players need their coach to believe in them and he promised that he believed in Torres. Yet Simeone would not be the manager he is if that belief was unconditional. Torres has returned to a place where they have heard such cheering. But football is ruthless because it always wants to hear it again.

dfanning@independent.ie

Sunday Indo Sport