Atletico Madrid, Clubs, Marcos Llorente, Spanish Primera División, Story, UEFA Champions League

Steve Nicol says Adrian’s error took the wind out of Liverpool’s sails in their defeat vs. Atletico Madrid.

Paco Gento won more European Cups than anyone else ever: six. Known as the Galerna (“the gale”), Gento blew up and down Real Madrid’s left wing for 18 years. These days, he is the club’s honorary president.

He’s also the oldest of a generation of footballers. His younger brother Julio, known as Gento II, began his career in the youth system at Madrid and played at Elche, Deportivo and Malaga. His other, even younger brother, Antonio — yes, he was known as Gento III — also played for Madrid. In 1962, he played alongside Paco before joining Levante, Racing and Real Oviedo.

Ramon Grosso inherited Real Madrid’s No. 9 shirt from Alfredo Di Stefano — “inherited” is a word that matters here — and went on to win the 1966 European Cup alongside Gento. Grosso had five children. One of them, his daughter Maria Angela, later married Paco Llorente (full name: Francisco Llorente Gento) — Paco was one of the sons of Maria Antonia Gento and Jose Luis Llorente. He was also the nephew of Gentos I, II and III. He played for Real Madrid for seven years before playing for Compostela. As if that weren’t complicated enough, Paco’s brother Julio Llorente played for Real Madrid as well. For two years, they were in the same team.

Paco and Julio’s other brothers, Tonin and Jose Luis “Joe” Llorente, also played for Real Madrid, but they played for the basketball team, not the football team. Tonin’s wife, Maria Jose “Tete,” played basketball for Spain. Joe’s sons, Sergio and Juan, are professional basketball players, too. So was Paco’s wife, Gelu, another international in the family.

Gelu and Paco have a son you might have heard of now, even if you hadn’t until this week. Just as the father was the star when Madrid beat European champions Porto in 1987, the son led another victory against the current holders on Wednesday. The son, grandson, nephew and great nephew of professional footballers, Marcos Llorente is the midfielder who came on at Anfield and changed the game, scoring twice and providing the assist for Alvaro Morata to take Atletico Madrid to a 3-2 victory over Liverpool, a victory their coach, Diego Simeone, described as “a game that will go down in history against an extraordinary opponent in a beautiful stadium.”

Llorente had never scored two goals in a game. He had scored six in his entire career, stretched across 160 games. He was averaging 0.04 goals per game, according to calculations in El Pais. Introduced as a substitute for Diego Costa, he then scored twice in an hour. Talking to his uncle on the radio afterward, Julio laughed and asked where Marcos had been hiding that shot all this time.

There was an assist, too.

When Morata scores the winner, you can see someone slide right past him on the turf, unable to stop, skidding out of shot. The figure flying by is Paco Gento’s great nephew, Ramon Grosso’s grandson, Paco Llorente’s son, Julio Llorente’s nephew and Sergio and Juan’s cousin. He’s also the man who always dreamed of a career at Real Madrid, yet whom Atletico Madrid fans ended up serenading. Wednesday might well be the last footballing night for some time, possibly even this season, and it was his night.

“This will stay in my memory forever — and in my family’s,” he said afterward.

This is not the way they planned it, but it might be better this way. Marcos always said his dream was to succeed at Real, and he began in the youth system there, following what you might call the family business. “The whole family are Madridistas a muerte,” Jose Luis told Marca two years ago. Real Madrid to the death. But here was Marcos, revived, making history for the other side of the city.

Yet if Marcos left Real for Atletico this summer, it is because his Uncle Julio, who also serves as his agent, took him. Besides, there is Atletico heritage in the family, too. His dad, Paco, began there, making his debut under Luis Aragones in the 1985-86 season before Real paid his 50 million peseta release clause in 1987. His grandfather played there, too: Grosso, then a Madrid youth-teamer coming through, was loaned to a struggling Atletico side in the 1963-64 season, and his goals helped keep them up before he returned to Real Madrid for the cup, which back then was played at the end of the league season. Upon his return, he scored his first goal for Real.

Against Atletico.

Marcos made the other journey, not least because he had to. When he was on loan at Alaves in 2016-17 — a season in which he shined, making more ball recoveries than anyone else in Spain — he told El Pais that the hardest thing in football, his dream, was playing regularly for Madrid. He had already witnessed how hard that could be in the B team — under Zinedine Zidane, he had not played the role he hoped for at Castilla — and he would confront it again when he returned.

Marcos Llorente celebrates after scoring in Atletico Madrid's Champions League win over Liverpool.
Marcos Llorente scored two and assisted on a third as Atletico Madrid knocked out Liverpool at Anfield.

With Zidane, Llorente played 20% of the minutes. Under Julen Lopetegui, he got just 11 minutes total. Santi Solari gave him opportunities, assisted by Casemiro’s injury, and he was a key player in the semifinal of the World Club Cup in 2018, scoring and being voted man of the match. “Never drop your guard,” he said then. “Things can change overnight, and you have to be ready.” It could be his motto, made flesh again this week. Things did change, as Zidane’s return saw opportunities slip away once again.

The talent was there even if opportunities weren’t — or so they believed. It runs in the family, after all. How could it not? “Genetics are good, but your body doesn’t develop because of generics. It develops because of the work you do,” he insisted. Yet part of that too was inherited, and not just because these are athletic genes, all the way back to Gento: “the quickest thing on two legs,” as Ferenc Puskas called him; “the devil,” in the words of Canario, his Brazilian teammate. “Gento’s speed was terrifying,” Ignacio Zoco said; Di Stefano complained that he was too quick, with the rest of the team unable to catch up. “I’d be there shouting ‘stop,’ ‘stop,'” he remembered.

Yes, it was about athleticism, but it was about attitude, too. Former Real Madrid goalkeeper Paco Buyo recalled how Paco Llorente, “a maniac of alimentation,” used to take two suitcases with him everywhere: One had his clothes, while the other carried food. He did not eat what the rest of his team ate; instead, he prepared everything himself. Later, as the author of a book on nutrition and nicknamed “Lettuce” by teammates, Paco was obsessed with healthy eating. Marcos is the same, with a paleolithic palate acquired young and embraced with rare enthusiasm — far more so than when he was little, his dad admits. He even owns two restaurants with Athletic midfielder Ibai Gomez.

Jorge Valdano described Marcos as “training like a marine and living like a monk,” writing: “The genes were a gift, but the effort is his alone.” His teammates confirm that he is the most serious man there is when it comes to conditioning. He sleeps, long and deep, in a bed with graphite netting around it. Even as a kid, he trained alone in the afternoon, after the rest had finished. There would be weights and runs, a series of sprints and endurance. There would be endless fartleks at Navalcarbon, the track in Las Rozas to the northwest of Madrid. There are still daily runs through the pines there. There always were.

Tenerife midfielder Luis Milla has known Llorente since they were 12. “It’s because of Marcos that I am the player I am. It is thanks to him that I realised just how important nutrition and personal training is: Genuinely, he’s an example to us all, the ultimate professional in every sense, someone you feel proud to call your friend,” Milla said. “Wednesday was incredible. I enjoyed it so much precisely because I know how he works, all the things he has done to make it possible. And now it will be there forever.”

A winger until Fernando Morientes made him a central midfielder in the U19s, Llorente was the league’s outstanding deep midfielder at Alaves, and Solari’s faith suggested a bright future at the Bernabeu. But Solari had gone, Zidane had returned and by the end of last season, aged 24, Llorente came to see little chance. So he asked to leave. He pushed to leave, in fact. Madrid were uneasy, particularly when it was Atletico who came for him, but Zidane saw few opportunities ahead. He had to seek them elsewhere. In the end, he went for €40 million. He was, El Mundo said, “made to measure” for Simeone.

Llorente’s arrival meant that “Profe” Ortega, Atletico’s famously sadistic fitness coach, might have finally met his match. Yet while Llorente worked, as diligently and relentlessly as ever, he played less than anyone expected. Simeone had started to see a different place for him, closer to his origins as wide man, running relentlessly, yet by Wednesday he had not started a Champions League game. He did not start at Anfield either. But, Milla said, “he always says the same thing: ‘hard work, clear conscience.’ And whether he plays or not, he’s always ready. He leaves nothing to chance, waiting for his moment.”

His moment was now. With the team under pressure like never before, Llorente came on, and nothing was the same again.

“In the end, when it’s like that, it tastes even better. We don’t know where the limit is when it comes to this team’s ability to hang on, to suffer, to work,” Llorente said afterward. He could have been talking about himself. “The emotion,” he added, “is impossible to describe. When you score a goal like that, you think about everything you have done, the sacrifice and the work, and it’s all worth it.”

The following morning, the front cover of the country’s best-selling newspaper was splashed with a picture of Llorente, the latest in a long, storied sporting dynasty. “Heroic,” the headline read, yet another cutting for a bulging family album.

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