Although Spain can count on such dazzling talents as Xavi, David Villa and Andres Iniesta, none are what you might call physically imposing. More than making up for that, however, is the in-form and in-vogue Fernando Llorente.
With his towering physique (1.94m), the 25-year-old is your classic centre-forward. He holds the ball up well, keeps the centre-backs occupied and his heading ability is a formidable attacking weapon. Yet it would be wrong to think of him as an ungainly target man, possessing as he does movement and technique that allows him to participate in team play as well as knocking in goals aplenty.
After a standout display against Portugal in the Round of 16 at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, where he came off the bench in the second half to change the course of the game, Llorente has gone on to make the most of his opportunities in the early stages of qualifying for the UEFA EURO 2012. The striker scored three vital goals in Spain’s last two qualifiers to take his international tally to seven in 12 appearances. Nor has he lost his touch in La Liga, where the world champion has found the target six times in eight outings for Athletic Bilbao.
Humility and hard work
There is no doubting that the Pamplona native is on a roll at present, nor that his goalscoring form has caught the eye of a host of leading European clubs. For all that, the player remains grounded. “It’s flattering to hear that big clubs are interested in you and it’s a sign that I’m getting better, but I’m very relaxed about it all. I don’t suppose anyone will want to pay my €36 million buy-out clause,” he said with a smile during a recent interview on Spanish TV’s channel Cuarto.
This unassuming side is one of the reasons why all the recent adulation has not changed Llorente, whose down-to-earth manner is not what you might expect from a star player. The long and at times difficult road to the top – he only made his full international debut in 2008 – has also helped him keep perspective.
The centre-forward made his top-flight debut with Bilbao as a 19-year-old before going on to shine at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Netherlands 2005, where his five-goal tally was only bettered by Lionel Messi and earned him the adidas Silver Shoe. And though everyone predicted a stellar rise for the youngster, the ensuing seasons proved frustrating as he endured spells out injured and out of favour as his side battled to avoid relegation.
In 2007, the player’s fortunes took a turn for the better with the departure of the club’s erstwhile first-choice striker Ismael Urzaiz and the arrival of new coach Joaquin Caparros. With the latter’s penchant for bringing through academy players, Llorente once again found himself in favour and began racking up goals and playing time, soon winning the hearts of the San Mames faithful. Also impressed was Spain coach Vicente del Bosque, who gave him his first senior cap against Chile in November 2008.
The call-up came as something of a surprise for the front-man, who only heard the news from a club employee during a training session. Llorente did enough to warrant a place in the squad for the FIFA Confederations Cup 2009 and this year’s showpiece event in South Africa, doubtless aided by his averaging 20 goals in each of the last two seasons and helping Bilbao to the Copa del Rey final in 2009.
As for South Africa 2010, Llorente will never forget the drama of the Final against the Netherlands, when, as an unused substitute, he suffered like any fan. “Never in my life have I felt such tension or experienced so much in a single game,” he recalled months after the event. Nor is he likely to forget his debut at the finals against Portugal, when he had his skin-tight jersey ripped and struggled to get it off. Indeed the player may still be looking for the damaged garment. After getting it signed by team-mates, he did not get to take the prized memento with him that night after it ended up in the team’s laundry.
Normally the third-choice striker for La Roja behind Villa and Torres, Llorente understands perfectly his role in the team. Despite his two goals against Lithuania and Scotland, games for which Torres was injured, he knows that he will almost certainly make way for El Niño on his return. For the moment, however, he is not getting carried away. "I’m going to continue making the most of this opportunity and help the team with every minute I play,” he told channel Cuarto.
Having finally made the breakthrough, there seems only one direction he can go now. What remains to be seen is whether his goals continue to delight the fans at the San Mames in the seasons to come or those of one of Europe’s top sides. For now though, as he says himself, it is all about “enjoying and making the most of these good times”.