Friday, November 5, 2010
Interview with Fernando Portugal
The world´s fifth largest country and soccer giant Brazil is a country dominated by the sport of soccer but is in no way a one sport country. There is professional basketball and both handball and volleyball receive tv time on the country´s largest channel, globo. Rugby is a sport on the rise. Playing numbers are rising 30% per year with new teams appearing nation wide. The most famous player the country has produced is a product of the country´s best team - São José Rugby. His name is Fernando Portugal. In addition to being an accomlished player with two years of experience as a professional in Italy, and Brazil´s sevens rugby captain, he is also the face of rugby in Brazil and has appeared on Brazilian sports channel Band Sports.
Fernando Portugal was kind enough to accept an interview during his busy schedule which currently has him preparing with the Brazilian team for this months Cross-Border competition in Missiones, Argentina which will also include Paraguay.
PT: When did you start playing rugby?
FP: "I started playing rugby like most people my age, invited by a friend. Without knowing what it was, without ever having seen a game, or heard anything about this sport, I went to practice. It took some time to understand what it was. We trained fundamentals alone, but I had no idea how everything would be used within a game. But as I've always liked sports and somehow always distinguished myself, I had a bit of ease in performing the movements of the game. I soon drew the attention of the coaches. However, only in my first game could I understand and feel the power of this sport. I fell in love with it all. The trip to the game, friendships and complicity of people playing a sport that few people knew, the environment of camaraderie, even among opponents, and especially the game itself. It never ended."
PT: You played and lived in Italy. What was it like for a Brazilian to play there?
FP: "It was a little difficult, given that the decision I had made to truly face the challenge and to conquer the space that I had gone in search for. It's a great story. Erick (Putin) and I decided to go to Italy and to try to play rugby professionally. I had no money for tickets, but in any event I went to the travel agency and reserved a ticket. When the day came to pay I did not know what to do and talked to some friends who were also my students. I was coach of the University of Law at USP (Universidade de São Paulo), Rugby XI.
Several hours latter one of them calls me and says that the team had made a "kitty" and they gave me the money to pay for the ticket. Finally we got to Italy. We went knocking on the doors of clubs that we found on the Internet. At the first club Colleferro Rugby, we were told from the coach the following sentence: "I do not know you, but I know the level of rugby in Brazil. You will not succeed!" Despite this he allowed us to train with the team and after four training sessions he came to talk to us and said that he liked a lot of our game, but that club could not enroll us because they were playing in Serie B, which had no vacancies for non-European Union players.
We decided to find another team that was in Serie A, in which two non-EU players could enter. 20KM from Colleferro lies a town called Segni, which had a team that playing in Serie A which was ascending to the Top 10, which was the first division of the Italian championship. We got there and were greeted once again with a daunting phrase: "In the Italian series, being Brazilian, you will only play if you are amazing." A bit apprehensive and really enjoying the structure that we saw, with players having massages before training, a wonderfully green countryside, a good locker room, everything we had never encountered at Brazilian clubs. But once again we accept the challenge and managed to convince them to sign us.
Erick had the misfortune of breaking his collarbone in a preseason game before the championship and ended up leaving for Brazil. I was able to be registered with the Italian Federation and played every game of the championship. I had a lot of difficulty. I could not speak the language and communication on the field was very limited. The weather was also something very difficult to adapt to, we practiced and we were playing in the snow. The pains of the impacts were even greater. But everything went very well. The hardest thing was having to work as a builder on weekdays from 07:00 to 16:30, only to then go training. The club provided me a house with all expenses paid, but did not pay me a salary. It was a difficult year, but I overcame “alla grande” and no other challenge scares me anymore.
The following year I asked the club president to give me better conditions, it was difficult to have to prove that I was able to play rugby, even being Brazilian, and still having to work as a builder to support myself. The president, who liked my work and behavior, offered me a better house, with meals and expenses paid, a car and a salary. It was a much better year in sporting terms. Despite being a small club from a town of 8,000 inhabitants, we had good games. We finished sixth in the championship but we won against teams like Piaccenza Termoraggi, that at the time were first in the league and has a fully professional roster, different from ours, which was made up of mostly semi-professionals. On this occasion I turned on the news Gazeta Dello Sport, the leading sports newspaper in the country. A Brazilian playing rugby in Italy and excelling was cause for comment.
It was two excellent years that will forever be in my memory. I had the opportunity to play with players from around the world and this heightens the experience too. I played with New Zealanders, South Africans, British, Argentine, Romanians and Italians, among others. Many of them have very high technical and physical levels. Many used this tournament as the gateway to Europe, for example even Tana Umaga has already played in Italy, and this makes the championship very hard and contested. Really it was a wonderful experience. I would do it all again."
PT: Rugby is growing in Brazil with a lot more teams and more players every year but do you think the level of the teams is getting better?
FP: "The level of play has improved greatly in recent years. Information about rugby is increasingly easy to find, both online, and in games, which are sometimes broadcast on television. But this is not enough. Within international competition we still have a very low level of rugby. The CBRu with its new board has been working a lot in training professionals able to teach quality and safe rugby. But the growth of rugby in Brazil is so great that this task is very difficult. We ended up creating a lot of teams, but without so much quality and of low levels. However this is only the beginning. We have many talented players and Brazil will inevitably be among the world powers of rugby. It's a question of time."
PT: What has been your best moment playing for Brazil so far?
FP: "I had some good times playing for Brazil, but I can site four as being the best. Two in rugby XV´s and two in Sevens. Not all ended in victories but in rugby defeats carry the same value. In 2002, when we were playing Rugby World Cup Qualifyers for the 2003 tournament, we played against Trinidad & Tobago and won 11-10. It was our bogeyman because we had lost by 45-3 in the previous match. In 2008, after 19 years, Brazil came back to defeat Paraguay. Of these 19 years I had played for Brazil for at least nine years. The victory in 2008, after giving so much in training and sacrifice washed our souls.
In 2004, we were playing the qualifiers for Rugby World Cup Sevens 2005. We went to Chile and we defeated them for the first time in the history of Brazilian rugby. We managed to do so at such an important moment, because it was worth a place in the Rugby Sevens World Cup in Hong Kong and we did so on their soil. It was an indescribable feeling.
In 2010, at the South American Sevens in Mar del Plata, we had an historical game with the Argentine team. We played with the players we're used to seeing on television in the IRB Sevens Series. We played as equals. We lost the first half 7-0 and won the second 7-5. The final score was 12-7 to Los Pumas, the lowest score in the history between Argentina and Brazil. But the coolest part was winning the second half, which was when scores usually increase."
PT: Do you think that Argentina can host Rugby World Cup 2023?
FP: "Rugby in Argentina is perceived as it is in some places in the world. It fills our eyes with envy to see what our "hermanos" (brothers) have done with this sport. It has grown absurdly and in an amateurish manner. Earlier this year I visited clubs including Alumni and SIC and they are impressive. SIC has about 1,200 registered players aged under 14. Not only do I think that Argentina could host a Rugby World Cup, but it should. The world of rugby, in which the Argentines absurdly contribute to its growth, having players in almost every major world championship, must repay this work with a World Cup. And we will take a piece, since we're so close. Who knows some games could be held in Brazil ???????"
PT: Do you think that the success of Argentina (Los Pumas) is influencing rugby in Brazil?
FP: "For a long time we did not want to recognize the strength of Argentine rugby on the world stage. We didn´t have many exchanges with the country, even though it is so close. Perhaps the rivalry between the two nations, as for example in soccer, has contributed to this fact. But today I have peace of mind in saying that we are proud of the achievements of Los Pumas and they represent South America so well on the world stage of this sport. We have begun to strengthen ties with this country to obtain more knowledge about the game."
PT: If Rugby World Cup 2023 were to be in Argentina do you think that Brazil could improve to the level of Uruguay and therefore have a great chance at qualifying?
FP: " I have no doubt about it. As I said earlier, this is a matter of time and is inevitable. Rugby is growing absurdly in Brazil. We are working hard to make this growth organized, and of a lasting quality. Soon we will be able to face the big world powers. Brazil deserves to be and must be representative in rugby. A continental country, which is a reference in many sports, cannot stay out of this marvellous sport. I believe this very strongly."