Wednesday 08 March 2023, 08:00

Torrecilla: Sport is the reason why I’m still here

  • Atletico Madrid and Spain player was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2020

  • In recognition of her public profile, she chose to speak about her illness to help others

  • Player made her return on 23 January 2022, a day that will live long in the memory

“The old Virginia is nothing like the new one. It’s unfortunate that I’ve had to go through this illness but it’s made me very positive and braver and stronger in many ways. The new Virginia lives life differently but better.”

The Virginia in question is 28-year-old Atletico Madrid and Spain midfielder Virginia Torrecilla and those words are hers. Back in 2020, when the world was learning how to cope with Covid-19, she had her world turned upside down by a brain tumour diagnosis.

Having thankfully now recovered, Torrecilla sat down with on International Women’s Day and spoke about her experience and how difficult her return to the field of play has been. Resolutely positive nonetheless, she showed her inner strength and was all smiles as she recalled the many good times she has experienced lately, thanks in the main to the game of football and the people close to her.

“Football saved me from lots of things, all the love I received,” Torrecilla said. “I’m not talking about my family or friends but complete strangers who have helped me so much. They told me about their experiences and urged me on. It made me realise the importance of putting everything I was going through out there.”

It was when she was diagnosed with cancer and began receiving treatment that she decided to go public. As a well-known player, she knew that opening up about her plight could help lots of people.

Virginia Torrecilla Virginia Torrecilla during a game in the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup in France - 080323

Helping others

“Maybe I wasn’t realistic about the way I lived life and I never would have thought I could get cancer, because I was a sportswoman, I looked after myself and I’d eaten properly since I was very young.” Torrecilla added. “I wanted people to understand that athletes like us could fall ill too.

“Sadly, life’s like that. Everyone can see that Virginia’s played at the Women’s World Cup, she’s signed for Atletico and is a superstar, but look what’s happened to me. I wanted to show that we can keep going and help lots of people.”

The subject of mental health came up when she spoke about what she has been through and what she is doing to get back to what she was. “I’ve needed help to bring that Virginia back to life and to smile. That’s mental health! I’ve been through some bad times when I’ve been depressed and haven’t wanted to get out of bed, but I’ve had to because I’ve had no other option. I’ve tried to be strong, but that didn’t make me feel or be better.”

Slowly but surely, she began facing up to new kind of challenge, and slowly but surely she began not only to come out the other side but to feel a footballer again, as the game filled her with hope.

“What I went through was very tough,” she explained. “People and your family give you so much support, but what’s really made me switch off from all the bad things is football, sport. I went back to what I enjoyed doing. Sport is what’s got me here today.”

Returning to the training ground was especially difficult, a first confrontation with reality. “I’ve had my team-mates with me the whole time, even though I’ve not been playing. It was wonderful when I came back. I was bald, a very different Virginia who weighed 17 kilos less but was very excited about life and what she’d overcome. I was sad too, though, because I couldn’t be the old Virginia anymore.”

Virginia Torrecilla returns to play during the Spanish Supercup final 2022 - 080323

Food for thought

“Football takes more away from me now than it gives,” said Virginia, ever the competitor, speaking with a sincerity that runs through the entire interview. “Then I think to myself and say, ‘How can it be that football takes so much away from me when I’ve been through super difficult situations and I’ve realised what life is all about?’”

Pausing for thought, she said: “The thing is, I don’t focus on what I’m doing right. I focus on football, on the fact that I’m not what I was and I don’t have the same influence in the team as I used to. So then I say to myself, ‘Virginia, how can you think about that when you’ve been through all this bad stuff?’ Unfortunately, though, that’s the way we are and this is what’s happening to me now.”

A new reality

From being one of Spain’s best players at the FIFA Women’s World Cup France 2019™, Torrecilla is now struggling for playing opportunities. With her illness behind her, she is finding it hard to accept her current situation.

“I want to be the player I was,” she explained. “It’s hard for me to get time on the pitch and to come to terms with what I am now. I’ve lost a lot of strength. It’s important to be very competitive and to fight, and I’m still trying hard to be the Virginia that I was, but above all to be a better person.”

Even so, she has learned to value even the smallest things: “I enjoy every moment as if it were my last because I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow.”

If there is one date that Torrecilla is not going to forget, it is 23 January 2022, the day she felt a footballer again, a day on which her Atletico Madrid took on Barcelona in the Spanish Super Cup. Though the result did not go her side’s way, there was no doubt that she was the star of the day.

A deserving case

“It was a momentous day for women’s football in Spain,” said Torrecilla. “Up against Barça, with lots of people who’ve been my friends for years… Alexia [Putellas], Irene [Paredes], Mapi [Leon], Mariona [Caldentay], Pati [Guijarro]. It was wonderful to have them there, and people I didn’t know, giving me a hug, tossing me up and down in the air and wishing me the best. It’s the most beautiful thing that’s ever happened to me.”

Before she signed off, we asked Torrecilla to deliver two very special messages, the first of them to one of her best friends, Alexia Putellas, who was named The Best FIFA Women’s Player for the second time in a row just a few days ago. “More than anyone, she deserves all the good things that are coming to her, not just as a player but as a person too,” said Torrecilla.

The other message was for all the girls who, like her, kick a ball around and dream of one day emulating their idols: “I’d tell them that I know the path is really tough, that they’re going to want to throw the towel in a lot of times, but that they stick at it and fight for their dreams. You can make it to where I am now.”

Photographs courtesy of Club Atletico de Madrid