It has many names. The yips. The jerks. The jitters. The staggers. The twitches. Steve Blass Disease. There’s even been an attempt to legitimize it by explaining it medically: focal dystonia.
They all describe a phenomenon, one of sudden and inexplicable loss of a basic function crucial to an athlete’s craft, which he carried out effortlessly and without a thought for decades. Until, one day, he couldn’t anymore. It afflicts golfers who, overnight, can no longer sink a 5-foot put to save their lives. Pitchers who can’t throw a strike. Fielders who can’t get the ball over to first base. Tennis players whose serve won’t go in. Bowlers who can’t hit the wickets. Darters suddenly all over the board.
For two years, one soccer players has suffered from the yips too. Fernando Torres, erstwhile lethal striker.
One Euro ago, in Switzerland and Austria in 2008, Torres was the world’s most dominant striker. His maiden season at Liverpool had yielded 33 goals. And in the final against Germany, he scorched Philipp Lahm to score the game’s only goal.
At the next major tournament, all that would change.
Torres turned up at the 2010 World Cup after a third great season in the Premier League, where he sold more jerseys than anybody. Yet he also showed up having just come off knee surgery. When he came on in the 1-0 upset loss to Switzerland in Spain’s opener, he was not yet two months removed from the procedure. As he would all tournament, he whiffed, fluffed and muffed even the simplest of chances. Had he been rushed back? Out of shape and low on confidence, Torres looked like a cheap impression of himself. And he’d never be the same.
Even as Torres floundered - his edge gone and self-belief sinking further with every missed chance - Vicente Del Bosque stuck with him until the semifinals of Spain’s victorious run. And even thereafter he continued to use him as a substitute. Torres, in dire need of a break and a re-boot, never got one. So his swoon carried on through the 2010-11 club season, wherein he would go almost two months without scoring.
His nine goals in the first half of that season were a solid output, but his .39 goals per game rate in league games was well below the .71 pace he had set in his first three years for Liverpool. And more and more he was missing chances once unmissable to him. His game, and seemingly his psyche too, swirled faster and faster into a vicious cycle where he was criticized for lacking confidence and losing confidence as consequence of the criticism.
A move to Chelsea made things worse. He labored under the yolk of a blank scoring record, going 903 minutes until he could return a first goal for his $78 million transfer fee. During the 2011-12 season, Torres would go another six months without scoring. It took a late flurry of goals – much of it coming courtesy of a hat trick against a decaying Queens Park Rangers – to boost his league tally to a not-completely-embarrassing six. Such was his fall from grace that there was even talk about Torres being left of Spain’s Euro 2012 roster, in spite of an injury preventing David Villa from playing.
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Torres made the roster, but Spain opted to play without him, or any natural striker, in its first game against Italy. Torres got a start against Ireland and bagged two goals against the tournament’s weakest team by some distance. And then, against Croatia on Tuesday, he disappeared again, as he so often has since the World Cup.
The lone moment where he even threatened to be dangerous came in the 32nd minute, when David Silva carved out some space in the box. But Torres misread Silva’s intentions and stopped running while a diagonal ball that would have put him face-to-face with the goalkeeper rolled innocuously by, a few yards ahead of him.
Brace against Ireland or not, late-season goals or not, lyrical cries that he is “BACK!!!” or not, Torres is not the same. The yips have got him in their clutches. He has a bad case of them. It isn’t so much that his once-deadly instincts aren’t there anymore, it’s that he doesn’t seem to trust them. Torres visibly questions himself at every turn. The yips will do that to you. You overthink, overcompensate. And by the time you’ve reeled your poisonous thoughts in, the moment has passed you by and the failure pushes you a little deeper under still.
Torres may again be good at times, but he will probably never again be good consistently. That’s the precedent the yips have set. Most of their victims never recover.