x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Richard Porta in the UAE to seize a second chance

The Uruguayan striker has put a forgettable stint at Al Wasl behind him to turn his career around with Dubai, writes John McAuley.

Richard Porta, who has nine goals from as many games for Dubai this season, has had to endure a tumultuous life and career. Lee Hoagland / The National
Richard Porta, who has nine goals from as many games for Dubai this season, has had to endure a tumultuous life and career. Lee Hoagland / The National

Richard Porta, despite citing Sydney as his birthplace, exudes a distinctly Latin American flavour. The hair is scraped back into a short ponytail, the deep brown eyes flit with excitement, and a narrow strip of beard is traceable under his bottom lip through his five o'clock shadow.

Although ostensibly unassuming - he bears an easy smile and maintains eye contact - when he speaks about past troubles he becomes temporarily animated, all gesticulation and pronounced facial expressions, before resuming his calm.

"Tranquilo" would not be a Spanish term he would use to describe his career, yet it has twice brought the Australia-born Uruguayan to the Pro League.

Last year's short and unsuccessful spell at Al Wasl has almost been consigned to distant memory, thanks mainly to a fresh appetite with his new employers Dubai, the modest top-flight club for whom in the summer he signed a two-year contract.

Porta is enjoying his return to the Emirates, as nine goals in as many games attest, but put aside protestations that his prolific run is the consequence of a tremendous team effort and you discover there is something else stoking his fires, even gnawing at him.

"For me, it's a second chance," he says in between sips of orange juice in a cafe in Jumeirah, Dubai. Porta makes use of a translator as his English is only "a little, very small". "At Al Wasl, too many people inside and outside the club were speaking badly about me, saying 'Porta's no good, he's too much trouble'. There was so much talk, but I said nothing.

"Of course, money was a big reason for my return, but I wanted to prove to those guys what I am made of. I had the desire to come back here and show what I was not allowed to at Al Wasl."

The move has had the desired effect.

"Now they are saying 'why is he doing so well? What is the difference?'" Porta says. "There is no difference. I'm the same guy, the same player, with the same capabilities. But my new team is set up differently and are taking advantage of my ability."

Porta was convinced to join Wasl on loan last October by the presence of then coach Diego Maradona, but struggled in two miserable months at the Zabeel Stadium, finding the net only once.

He attributes the failure to being played out of position, when Juan Manuel Olivera and Mariano Donda, two fellow South Americans, formed the fulcrum of Maradona's attack.

Porta returned to Nacional, the Uruguayan side, where reported barbs were exchanged in the press with his combustible former manager - Maradona once blasted: "If he had something to say about anything maybe he should have said it to my face and not have to travel 10,000 miles to Uruguay to make such statements" - yet the quintessentially quiet striker prefers not to elaborate.

"Everything happens for a reason," he says.

Porta understands better than most that last remark.

When he was two years old his family relocated from Australia to Uruguay, where a year later he began to play football and was soon competing in age categories four levels above his own.

At 11, at the request of his father's friend, Porta enrolled in the youth academy of River Plate de Montevideo, a top-level team, and committed daily to the three-hour round trip to the capital from his home in Toledo, a small city on its outskirts.

Promotion to the first team secured at 17, Porta excelled to such an extent that in 2008 Siena, the Italian Serie A side, paid €5 million (Dh24.4m) to acquire his services on a five-year deal and, in the process, smash their previous transfer record.

However, the "dream move" was anything but. A change of coach meant Porta made only one appearance. He was then loaned to Portugal's Belenenses on, he alleges, one condition: his contract included a clause that guaranteed from Siena the payment of €5m if Porta displayed any disrespectful behaviour to teammates, management or the club's board.

Three goals in two games suggested there would be no such problem, but more managerial upheaval left Porta as a bit-part player. Local players were preferred to expose them to the wider European market and generate revenue.

Belenenses struggled and Porta, although used sparingly as a reserve, was made the scapegoat.

"In the technical meeting after each game they looked for answers to our bad results and would say it was because of me," he says. "Even though I wasn't playing."

In his eighth month, he cracked. A heated discussion with the coach ended with his manager opening an internal case against the player. Porta would be sent back to Siena, while Belenenses pocketed some compensation.

"I asked the coach why he was doing this, telling him he was throwing away one year of my career, of my life" Porta says. "And he said, 'first of all, I am an employee of the club'.

"So he was confirming it was simply to get the club money. They had put me in that position because it was easy money.

"I had two years without playing, the worst time of my career. As a boy you dream of playing in a big league in Europe, in Italy or Spain.

"For 24 years I dreamed of this, but it was an illusion. My dream turned into a nightmare."

Again, Porta sought refuge in familiar surroundings. And again, he prospered. He first found himself back on loan at River Plate, helping the club to a fifth-placed finish. A loan switch to Nacional followed, bringing five goals in 19 games and qualification for the Copa Libertadores.

His 2011/12 campaign was punctuated by two strenuous months at Wasl, yet Porta still found enough time with Nacional to recover and top the Uruguayan scoring charts, notching 17 times in 16 games.

Dubai, impressed by his sudden rude health, decided to make their intentions clear in June, Porta rejecting an approach from Gus Poyet, his compatriot in charge of the English second-tier side Brighton & Hove Albion, and making the Dubai Sports and Cultural Club his new home.

A chequered history now behind him, Porta is keen to grasp this "second chance".

"In Uruguay life is difficult," he says.

"We work simply to live. For example, before I went to Italy if I had to pay the electricity bill I then could not pay the water bill. I remember times living with my wife and we had only US$50 [Dh183] to last 10 days. We had to split that to make it possible to survive.

"Here, though, you can afford to go to restaurants, to the coffee shop or allow yourself to buy gifts for your children.

"In Uruguay you have to make provisions for everything, you cannot overspend."

Porta explains how he could afford his first car only after he returned from Siena, buying a Chery Tiggo, a cheaper Chinese brand, purely because he was not used to such extravagances.

A contract secured with Dubai, now he is providing for his family - wife Natalia, daughters Julieta (5) and Jasmine (1), whose initials, tattooed in Mandarin, protrude from beneath the left sleeve of his T-shirt - and building their future.

"The money has helped me buy a car, buy my home, an education for my daughters," Porta says. "But I have to keep working hard, keep performing and proving myself to secure our future after football.

"Football is my life, I love football. But family is first, always."

jmcauley@thenational.ae

twitter Follow us @SprtNationalUAE