Virginia Torrecilla's return to Atletico Madrid: How Spain midfielder battled cancer and is chasing Euros dream

Two years ago, Virginia Torrecilla, now 27, was living life to the fullest as a professional soccer player, training with Atletico Madrid and dreaming of the next World Cup with the Spanish national team. Then 2020 came around. The pandemic hit, but there was more troubling news for the young midfielder: She found out she had cancer.

Soccer quickly took a back seat. "When I was diagnosed with cancer, the first thing I think of, obviously, is living. Soccer went from being my priority in life to being in fifth or sixth place for me," Torrecilla said in an interview with ESPN.

The Atleti player was diagnosed with cancer in the spring of 2020. It all began with a series of headaches and neck pain, which prompted her to undergo a scan to get to the root of her problem. Doctors discovered a brain tumor. After undergoing surgery, Torrecilla posted a video on her Instagram explaining the situation and commented that she was excited about winning the "most important match of her life."

She announced to her social media audience that she would be away from the game longer than expected, with the caption "I'll be back! For now, I'll be one more fan in the crowd," the midfielder wrote.

Doctors predicted Torrecilla would have a tough time returning to the sport to which she'd dedicated her life; after all, the midfielder had made waves in 2012 as one of the youngest ever to make an appearance in the Primera División de la Liga de Fútbol Femenino (known as the Superliga Feminine back then) when she went into the UD Collerense first team at age 15. However, with the passing months and chemotherapy, she kept dreaming of making a return to the field.

"They would tell me that I would be able to play again because everything was going well and I was motivated," she said. "At the end of the day my priority was my recovery, my health and above all else [to] live, but there comes a moment where they tell you it will pass. With that came my motivation to play soccer again and be the Virginia I was before."

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Players showed their support throughout her treatment -- Diego Costa celebrated a goal by holding up her No. 14 shirt -- and in October, 2020, Torrecilla made her first public appearance back at the club, and was met with a special message in the press room: "For you, for Vir, for all. Atleti."

She was making progress down the road to recovery last year when life threw her another personal challenge: On June 3, 2021, Torrecilla and her mother, Mari, were in a car accident that left her mother paralyzed from the waist down. Torrecilla, unhurt in the crash, described the incident on her social media.

"I remember perfectly how my mother told me she couldn't feel her legs while blood trickled from her forehead. After these last two years that we've gone through," she continued, "after my illness, it's true I've been through cancer, but what I have lived with my mother has been horrible. I can't explain it because it's something I would never wish on anybody and when it's you who doesn't go through it and can't do anything to help, it's really tough."

Fortunately, Torrecilla's mother is doing well at home and her daughter now knows where all of her own strength comes from. "She's a fighter," Torrecilla said with a proud smile, "and anyone who asks where I got the strength to fight, there it is -- it's my parents."

Not leaving her father behind, Torrecilla mentioned how he has played an important part these past two years, too. "He is the soul of this family. He has always done a little bit of everything, but I have truly realized he is an authentic warrior."

You'd think Torrecilla would like to forget the past couple of years, these challenges have been used as opportunities for personal growth.

"If I was Virginia 2.0 before, now comes Virginia 4.0. I need to improve in a lot of aspects, and I am doing that. I'm not the Virginia I was before. I've improved a lot in so many aspects, especially on a personal level ... life puts so many obstacles in your journey [that you must] overcome them, and I think I'm doing that."

In January of this year, Virginia 4.0 returned to the beautiful game. She did it at the Women's SuperCup Final between Barcelona and Atletico de Madrid, playing her first minutes since the diagnosis. After the game, which Atleti lost, her teammates and Barcelona players alike celebrated Torrecilla's comeback by tossing her in the air.

"I think my re-debut that so many people waited for, that I had dreamed of after being off the field for so long, was something really special and something I never would have imagined," she said. "I never thought I would go through what I went through and how everyone after everything supported me and cheered for me the way they did... the way in which the rival team did."

Torrecilla returned to the Spanish league a few weeks later, while Atletico de Madrid extended her contract through this summer.

"I know I have to keep working and getting better," she said. "I'm working to win minutes on the field and I'm very happy and proud with everything we've accomplished."

Winning minutes with Atletico de Madrid means working towards her goal to also return to the national team to play for Spain at Euro 2022 this summer under coach Jorge Vilda. "[He] has been there during my entire illness -- not only him, but all of the coaching staff," Torrecilla said. "They've included me in all of their matches with my jersey or my bracelet, and I've even been in the pregame chats through FaceTime. I really appreciate it from the bottom of my heart."

The former Spanish captain wants to be considered for the national team purely because of her skills on the field.

"I know they're waiting for me. I really hope, from the bottom of my heart, I can be [at Euro 2022] on my own terms. I don't want people to think 'poor Virginia' because that's behind me."

As of this spring, Torrecilla remains cancer-free and proudly posts regularly on social media about her daily trainings with Atletico de Madrid. It's a stark contrast to the days when she posted about battling an illness that didn't stop her from returning to the game she loves.