Atletico Madrid’s Marcos Llorente watches his diet but is hungry for Champions League and LaLiga titles

“I don’t eat breakfast.” Marcos Llorente — Atletico Madrid midfielder, winner of LaLiga, conqueror of Manchester United and owner of perhaps the best abs in Spanish football — is telling ESPN about the lifestyle he says made him the player he is.

“I eat lunch at 2 p.m., dinner at 9 p.m. Two meals a day. I train without having eaten.”

Training on an empty stomach with Atletico’s fanatically precise manager, Diego Simeone, and infamously demanding fitness coach, Oscar “Profe” Ortega, might sound like a nightmare. But Llorente — who arrives for this interview smartly dressed, impeccably polite and punctual — is a persuasive and enthusiastic advocate.

“The other day, coming back from Manchester [after Atletico’s 1-0 Champions League round-of-16 win at Old Trafford on March 15], we had dinner there after the game,” he says. “We caught the plane, I got home at 6 a.m., went to bed, woke up at 1 p.m. and didn’t eat anything until dinnertime. That’s 24 hours without eating. Because that’s what my body wanted.”

“Lunch is something bigger. Dinner is lighter, a vegetable soup or a salad,” he says. “It depends what my body wants. I listen to it. If I’m hungry, I’ll eat.”

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Llorente has always been different. The latest product of one family’s sporting dynasty, his father, grandfather and uncle all played for Real Madrid, his great uncle Paco Gento won six European Cups, and his mother was a Spain international basketball player.

As a youngster coming through Real Madrid’s academy, and during his breakout 2016-17 loan season at Alaves, he was known for a single-minded focus and self-discipline. His nickname — inherited from his father, Paco — was el Lechuga (the Lettuce).

“Since I was little, I’ve had a good diet and I’ve slept well,” he tells ESPN. “I’ve spoken to teammates who didn’t believe in it, and when they started to look after themselves they noticed a massive difference.

“Four or five years ago, they thought it was strange. But over time they’ve all realised it’s worth it. Nowadays a lot of footballers look after themselves.”

Llorente earned rave reviews as a defensive midfielder at Alaves — where he led the league for ball recoveries — but on his return, that wasn’t enough to cement a place in the Real Madrid team. Then-manager Zinedine Zidane wasn’t convinced, preferring Casemiro in that role, and two years later Llorente moved across town to Atletico in July 2019 for what seemed like an expensive €40m fee.

Midway through a solid debut season, one game changed everything: March 11, 2020, Atletico’s last match before lockdown, a 3-2 win at Liverpool that dumped the then-champions out of the Champions League in the round of 16.

At the time, Llorente’s introduction — replacing Diego Costa at 1-0 down — looked a confusing and negative move. He responded by scoring twice and creating a third goal in extra time. Reinvented as a marauding attacking midfielder, the key man on one of Atletico’s best European nights, he later named his pet dog Anfield as well.

“Marcos never imagined himself being able to play as a forward,” manager Simeone said later. “But watching him train, his technical and physical ability and his shooting give us the option … When players show they have the tools, coaches have to pay attention.”

Llorente went on to be a candidate for LaLiga’s player of the season in 2020-21, scoring 12 goals to help Atletico win their first title since 2014. Though he’s now 27 and theoretically close to his footballing peak, the Spaniard is already thinking about what comes next.

“A footballer’s career, depending on how lucky you are with injuries, ends sooner or later. At 35, at 37, it’s over,” he tells ESPN. “You have to look for another source of income, but more importantly, a source of entertainment, a source of work. If you lose your goals, you lose your way in life. Some footballers and sportspeople fall into depression when they retire because they have no more objectives, no more dreams.”

Llorente is speaking at the Madrid restaurant he co-owns — the menu full of gluten-, sugar- and additive-free dishes — one of several business ventures he’s already pursuing away from football.

“You have to separate what’s ‘fit’ from what’s healthy,” he explains. “Often what’s ‘fit’ isn’t healthy, it’s what doesn’t make you put on weight, what doesn’t have a lot of calories. People add a lot of ingredients that aren’t healthy. They think eating healthily means eating salad, or something a bit boring. It isn’t like that. You can eat a healthy pizza or a healthy waffle … I have my source of carbohydrates, my source of protein, vegetables. I know what I have to eat.”

So that’s when to eat and what to eat covered. Presumably that’s not all it takes to look like this?

“You’ll have to train too! Eating good food isn’t enough,” he laughs. “There are five basic pillars: diet, rest, exercise, your head … actually, there are four! Rest is something I look at a lot.”

That includes sleeping in a special bed that “creates a bubble that shields you from exposure to electromagnetic emissions through our silver and graphite mesh,” according to the website of manufacturer Hogo. It’s no wonder the top-of-the-range California king model retails at (gulp) just under $40,000. Llorente loves it so much that he invested in the company and had one shipped to Spain’s Las Rozas training base for Euro 2020.

“I sleep 8½ or nine hours a night,” Llorente says. “It’s going to bed early, above all. Sleeping from 12 a.m. to 8 a.m. isn’t the same as sleeping from 4 a.m. to 12 p.m.. Going to sleep when the sun goes down, and getting up when the sun comes up, is fundamental.”

Sleeping after Atletico’s win at Old Trafford last month must have been difficult?

“It was very important,” Llorente says, when asked about eliminating United. “Even more so at that historic stadium … It was important for the team to go through. It gives us strength for what comes next. We knew it was going to be difficult, but the team was convinced that we would at least make things complicated for [United], and that’s what we did.”

What came next was a Champions League quarterfinal with Manchester City. Atletico went into last week’s first leg in their best form this season: they had won their previous six games, Llorente starting all of them.

That didn’t stop Simeone adopting an ultra-defensive (and much criticised) 5-5-0 formation in Manchester. Atletico failed to register a single shot on or off target in a 1-0 defeat, but what little danger they posed, two breakaway second-half counterattacks, came when Llorente — always different — burst forward down the right wing.

Turning the tie around in Wednesday’s second leg at the Wanda Metropolitano would be an achievement to match their wins at Anfield and Old Trafford. If Atletico are to pull off an upset, don’t doubt for a second that Llorente will be at the centre of it.