After a night of pomp and circumstance, Fernando Torres’ professional career came to a close on Friday as he played his last game wearing the neon blue and pink of Sagan Tosu.
Across from him on the pitch were two players with whom he won the 2010 FIFA World Cup — current Vissel Kobe stars Andres Iniesta and David Villa. The bouquets, postgame speeches and Atletico Madrid-inspired shirts Tosu players wore in honor of Torres’ longtime Spanish club added to the testimonial-like atmosphere.
But there was an actual game with real stakes in the J. League’s first division to be played, and it ended in a humiliating 6-1 Sagan loss in front of a capacity crowd at Ekimae Real Estate Stadium. Not that the capacity crowd of over 23,000 seemed to mind, cheering Torres as he gave his farewell speech, took a lap of honor and was hoisted into the air by his teammates.
Although it was a deserved tribute to a tremendous career, the reality is that Sagan is still in the relegation playoff spot with 10 rounds remaining, a reflection of the struggles endured by countless Japanese clubs that have tried to build their team around aging foreign superstars.
In the harsh light of day, Torres simply never became the difference-maker on the pitch that Sagan expected. Over 35 appearances for Tosu, he notched just five goals — one for every 476 minutes he played in the J1. That’s well below his domestic league tallies for Liverpool (where he scored every 121 minutes), Atletico (193) and even Chelsea (340).
While Torres’ abilities were already on the decline by the time he arrived in Japan at the age of 34, it’s also true that his supporting cast wasn’t nearly at the level he enjoyed in Europe. After years of playing alongside the likes of Steven Gerrard, Didier Drogba and Antoine Griezmann, the transition to lining up alongside Mu Kanazaki must have been jarring to say the least.
The club’s plan to rapidly convert Tosu from a defensive, counter-heavy side to a flashy, offensive unit built around Torres was doomed from the start as goals failed to materialize. Then-manager Massimo Ficcadenti reportedly chafed at front office pressure to use the club’s new star, one of several factors that led to the Italian’s dismissal with five rounds remaining in the 2018 campaign.
After barely managing to escape that year’s relegation dogfight through a tiebreaker, Tosu set out on a new course this season under Spanish coach Lluis Carreras, who attempted to establish his own attacking system. He lasted just 10 rounds, during which the team scored only one goal — a J. League record in futility.
While Tosu did learn to score again under current manager Kim Myung-hwi, the team is currently in 16th place with 21 goals scored (third worst in the J1) and 40 goals allowed (tied for second worst).
Without Torres, it seems increasingly unlikely that Tosu will be able to escape the drop zone as it did last season, raising the odds that strained relations between the club and its fans — previously noted in the May 2 edition of this column — will fray even further.
We’ve traveled this path before in the J. League. In 2014, Cerezo Osaka made waves by signing Uruguay international Diego Forlan, dropping the former Atletico and Villarreal star into a squad known as the club’s “platinum generation.”
Forlan’s arrival boosted the club’s home attendance by nearly 3,000 per game, and the media buzz he generated through his early goals — six in the team’s first 11 games — was a needed shot in the arm for a J. League struggling to draw fans after 3/11. But a poor campaign that featured two managerial changes saw Cerezo finish in 17th, ending the club’s five-year run in the top flight.
While Forlan produced much better numbers — seven J1 goals and another 10 over half of a J2 campaign — than Torres, it’s fair to say that the latter will have a more prominent place in the J. League history books.
Cerezo was late to the game in terms of leveraging Forlan’s presence to appeal to international audiences, but those efforts (a project this writer, in full disclosure, was heavily involved in) became the seeds for the J. League’s modern international promotions.
The league, in expanding its digital efforts alongside broadcaster DAZN, has done a tremendous job of using Torres alongside Iniesta and Villa to create attractive content for domestic and global viewers.
Torres, to his full credit, enthusiastically participated in his media appearances and fan service sessions. Even on days when the club forbid autograph requests at training, he was known to bring his own pen and sign shirts and photos for dozens of young fans.
That the league was able to successfully market Torres despite his enrollment at one of its smallest clubs can also be considered a victory, proving that there is room for top foreign talent to exist outside of the traditional powerhouses.
While Torres didn’t perform at the level of fellow Spaniards Iniesta and Villa, it’s his contribution to the J. League’s domestic and international marketing and genuine affection for Japan that will see him remembered fondly for years to come.