Marcelo, Bristow and Tony O’Shea: How Diogo Portela went from Brazil’s favelas to darting sensation
Millions of boys in Brazil lace up their boots every day in the hope of becoming professional footballers, many of them wanting to provide their families with a brighter future. But the doors only open for a select few. One of those handful of talents was Diogo Portela, but the doors didn’t exactly open in the fashion he may have anticipated as a youngster.
Now a South American darting flag-bearer, living in Chorley, northern England, it could have been a contrasting outcome for him.
“I think all youngsters in Brazil are footballers,” Portela laughed. “It’s just amazing how many talented players we have there and how many opportunities there are if you want to become a professional. In my case, I was quite good – better than the average – but when I was 17, I had a big ankle injury that took me off the pitch for six months and took me another six months to get back to where I was. Also, my parents always thought it would be better for me if I just went to school and university, so when the age came I decided to follow their instructions.
“And, they were not wrong. With a degree in economics and a masters in business management I owned an investment company in Rio de Janeiro and by the age of 25, I could afford a lot of things, things I could never imagine.”
An ankle injury away from a career in football. An inevitably devastating period in the Brazilian’s life, but he wasn’t the only act on the professional books. A certain Marcelo – now a Real Madrid and Brazil legend, and four-time Champions League winner – would line up alongside the now 31-year-old.
“Apart from Marcelo – of course – I was the most successful person in the whole team,” claimed Portela. “He was the best player in the team by a margin. I played with him when we were 10-12, then he changed teams and I think he came back when we were 15. Just a year later he was transferred to Fluminense [a top-flight Brazilian football club] and six months after that he signed for Real Madrid. The rest is history.”
Portela grew up on the boarder of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. The esteemed Christ the Redeemer would look down on his family’s home – a landmark that would later be etched to his playing shirt in a silhouette fashion.
He had lived in the very same building for the opening 16 years of his life. It was only in 2004 he would move to a more suitable neighbourhood, in which he would remain until he exited the country a decade later.
In his younger years, like many other children of his age, Portela looked up to the Brazilian footballing legends of Ronaldo and Pele, as well as in darting terms former world champions, John Lowe and Eric Bristow, although there was an additional rather uncanny name that sprung to mind.
“When I started playing international competitions there was a very special player, and probably the only one to give his spare time to players from Brazil, and that was Tony O’Shea. I cannot describe how much me and my family love that man,” expressed the Brazilian.
So, Tony O’Shea – a three-time World Championship finalist – would provide a helping hand to those very few arrowsmiths from South America’s largest kingdom. There were very few, but that hasn’t always been the case.
“In 2004 the government prohibited gambling and all the sponsorship had to be cancelled,” the Chorley-based ace explained. “The main league in Rio de Janeiro used to have 300-500 players. Now we are happy to have 30-50. The numbers have cut down a lot, but I still believe we can return to the better times with the exposure I am giving to the sport.
“Just recently, I have been approached by some stream companies that want to introduce darts into the national market and asked me to work as pundit for them – which I was really glad about. I hope it can bring the attention of sponsors and help the players out. I am doing my best from the UK but I cannot be in two places at the same time, I need to have some help over there to get things growing again.”
The transition from football to darts was somewhat fate for Portela. A momentous transformation that entailed his dad’s involvement in the sport and his parents’ desire for him to attend university.
“When I was 16 I was still quite into football and I only started playing darts to get in touch with my dad,” articulated the Brazilian. “There was only one reason to go to darts tournaments and that was to meet up with my dad.
“But when I turned 18, decided to leave football and go to university, I had a break in both football and darts. Only playing social football matches during the weekends.
“In 2010, when I was nearly finished at university, I decided to come back to darts and give it a real go, it was then I started practising and winning local tournaments. Then I qualified a few times to represent Brazil and when I thought I was good enough I decided to move over to the UK – I rarely play football nowadays.”
The decision to depart his country of birth was an onerous one for Portela; one his family didn’t particularly give credence to, but dreams are their to be pursued, and without a move across the world those aspirations wouldn’t have been within the realms of possibility for the Brazilian.
“To be honest, they weren’t very happy and didn’t believe I would make it,” Portela said, after informing his parents of the move to England. “When the day arrived they were quite surprised that I didn’t hold back. I’m glad I made that decision and now they all understand it. I have all the support I need to keep following my dreams.”
Obviously, with a move abroad comes a new job, new life and new beginnings. That was a similar approach for Portela.
He added: “My English was terrible and I could not have the same job as I had back in Brazil so I had to start from scratch. My first six months here were cleaning tables and setting up rooms in an hotel, serving breakfast and cleaning floors.
“I used to work from 5am until 3pm and then be going to darts league from 6pm until midnight. I remember the money was so tight that I signed for five dart teams in the weekdays just to get free food so I could save a bit of money for the competitions during the weekend.
“I was glad that after six months I had improved my English and got a job at L’Oreal which helped a lot to get settled in London. After that I never looked back.”
After Tony O’Shea’s advice and guidance earlier in his career, a number of key figures assisted Diogo in order pull off his move to England – both in and outside the sport.
“The people who most helped me most weren’t involved in darts,” Diogo asserted. “I’ve got to mention here James, Matt and Meena – all three I met in Brazil and helped me with the move – and also Bernard and Emily – who offered their house for free in our first month in London. I could not have done anything without them.
“In the darts world, I’d have to say Johnny Stefano [chairman of the London Darts Organisation], Jason Clarke and also James Wade were the three who guided me the most, but there were and are a lot of people that helped me and if I were to mention them all, I wouldn’t have the space,” he added with gratefulness.
Subsequently, the initial real glimpse of the fluorescent Brazilian arrived. Sky One’s one-hit wonder gameshow, One Hundred and Eighty, would pair Portela up with James Wade, with the duo winning the £16,000 top prize.
“It’s funny because I didn’t really know there would be a darts show. A friend in a local competition mentioned it and sent me an email. I did sign up but they took about two months to get in touch and another two months to actually choose me. I never thought I had made it. I was lucky I think, I was meant to be there.”
For the aspirant professional darter, Qualifying School is the place where intentions become actuality. Four days of intense, gruelling action in an ultra-competitive field. And that would be Portela’s ensuing footstep.
“When I moved to the UK, I went to one of the ProTour events to watch Kyle Anderson – who I’d met in 2004 and kept in touch with since then,” he remarked. “I remember walking in that room with all the best players in the world and nearly crying. That was the dream in front of me and I knew that Q-School would be the first step.
“Of course I wasn’t good enough but money wasn’t tight anymore and I could invest in my darts career so why not get some experience? Since then I have been trying every year to get my tour card, getting so close in a couple of years but I guess the best is still to come.”
Since making his debut in 2015, Q-School has become an annual contingency for Portela. He’ll be pinning his hopes on reversing his previous attempts going into his sixth appearance in January.
“The last 18 months has been a rollercoaster ride for me, to be honest,” Diogo declared. “I have been changing so many things and trying to get the best people around me to support and develop my career, and I think I will have everything ready in a couple of months. Only then I will be able to plan for Q-School next year.
“I think now that I am living so close to the venue, I won’t stay in a hotel. I will try and come back home everyday, relax in my own bed, play my own video games, eat my own food. I think that will help me out over the course of the four days,” he enumerated as he alluded to a recent change of residence.
If you need to know one thing about Diogo Portela – it's that he'll play with a smile on his face no matter what bad luck comes his way…
— Chris Hammer (@ChrisHammer180) December 18, 2018
Despite felicity never quite falling at his feet at Qualifying School, Portela has appeared on our television boxes on several occasions, having twice qualified for the World Darts Championship at Alexandra Palace and representing Brazil in the World Cup of Darts.
Alexandre Satin, Bruno Rangel and Artur Valle have all partnered ‘Braziliant’ in Germany as with obvious gratitude towards Diogo Portela, Brazil were integrated in to the World Cup of Darts.
“I was happy with the announcement but it never clicked until the day we were in the venue warming up,” said Diogo. “It was something I did on my own. I could never imagine that.
“Doors opened in the sport I love because of me, not anyone else. It was a really good feeling. Also, I hadn’t represented my country for over three years and I was missing it. I just can’t describe how good was that.”
Prior to taking to the Eissporthalle stage in Frankfurt, Portela had represented his country at the WDF World Cup and WDF America’s Cup – which patently fell within no comparison to a blockbuster tournament broadcasted worldwide.
Months after his maiden World Cup of Darts appearance, the 31-year-old would head back home in order to participate in the inaugural Central and South American World Championship Qualifier. Another step forward for Brazilian and South American darts that in all likelihood would not have happened had it not been for a man of Portela’s astute nature.
‘Braziliant’ would as conspicuously expected ease through the qualifier, beating his World Cup of Darts teammate at the time, Alexandre Satin, in the final.
It was the World Championship that saw a new star born in Rob Cross, a legend step down in Phil Taylor and Paul Lim falling agonisingly close to an historic nine-dart leg. Besides that, it would be the first World Championship featuring a Brazilian.
And you knew indisputably it was a Brazilian before he had even took to the stage. The renowned ‘Mas Que Nada’ would be his choice of music as patches of green and yellow emerged in the Ally Pally crowd.
— PDC Darts (@OfficialPDC) December 21, 2017
He would lock horns with a certain Peter Wright in the first round, and after the world number two’s health problems prior to the tournament, Portela was hoping to stun ‘Snakebite’. The Brazilian produced a valiant performance, averaging 91.66 in a 3-1 defeat to the Scotsman.
“[Playing at the World Championship] was another great moment in my life, and a good performance against Peter, too,” smiled Portela. “I was happy to be there, and to get experience on that stage. I kind of felt I belonged there and wanted to be back. If I could I would never leave that stage,” he laughed.
Brazil flags were scattered across those in attendance. Diogo himself would have the aforementioned Christ the Redeemer imprinted on his playing shirt’s forepart, whilst the famous ‘10’ would be emblazoned on his reverse side.
That famous ‘10’ has been punched on the back of countless footballing greats, namely Pele, Lionel Messi and Diego Maradona. But, how did it end up being attached to Diogo himself?
“The number 10 is a symbol in Brazil,” Diogo claimed. “If something is really nice for us we say it’s a 10. If a person is lovely, we say he/she is a 10. If we had an incredible vacation trip we say it was 10. Everything in Brazil is about the number 10, and of course it all came from the football. The number 10 is the best player on the team. It’s the one who could carry the team in the moments of pressure.
“So we brought it into other sports. I know even Gabriel Medina [two-time surfing world champion] has used 10 on his shirt, so why couldn’t I use it on mine? I just love it – it’s something that really means a lot for us. But, unfortunately, I had to rebrand the 10 due some players’ complains. I like my new shirt, but I loved the first yellow one I had.”
We’ve witnessed the World Series of Darts make headway in recent years, being introduced in Las Vegas, Shanghai and even Dubai. The World Series has been pivotal in the global growth of the sport in these regions, could that soon be the case in Brazil? Perhaps held on the Copacabana Beach? Portela thinks not.
“Not in the near future, no. There is a lot of things to come first in my opinion, but it’s definitely a massive market to approach. All the Central and South American countries deserve that chance to develop the sport over there and I will fight to make it happen. But one step at the time.”
It’s unequivocally a market to approach. And, bringing through talent from a juvenile age in a judicious way to begin proceedings. Having attended the JDC Accreditation evening at Ashton Gate Stadium in Bristol, Portela is on course of drastically changing the perception of Brazilian darts.
The 31-year-old added: “I have been in touch with the JDC and done their training, but I cannot be in two places at the same time. I need people in Brazil to be willing to work alongside me and take over the project over there. The doors are opened and I’ve got the knowhow to do the things, I just need someone to actually work on it back home.”
Rio de Janeiro’s favelas are frequently in the news for all the wrong reasons, whether that be violence or gang complications. It’s hardly a place to live for any youngster. Darts has the ability to teach children mathematics as well as spending time with their friends and gaining sporting expertise, and it’s within Portela’s plans to help those living in the favelas.
“That is my life goal. I would love to open a darts academy in the favelas,” stated the Brazilian. “After all I lived there, if I could give one kid a chance to change his and his family’s life, I would be so proud.
“They need help and I am really willing to help them, but I need to do my job here first before I go any further. It’s so scary what those kids live through on a daily basis, you could never imagine. I really want to give them an opportunity to change their future.”
So, a sporting career that commenced through football and worked its way to darts. Portela still vaguely follows football’s happenings back home in Rio de Janerio, and that was evident whilst on holiday in Portugal. He sported a Botafogo jersey – a top-flight football team who are based in Portela’s place of birth, and aptly was where Marcelo would take his football to the beach, aged six and beyond.
Now two huge sporting personalities, representing Brazil in two completely different manners. Many watching on from the sidelines would have guessed Marcelo would play for his country as a professional footballer, but naught would have predicted Diogo Portela would be a key figure in putting darts on the map in not only Brazil, but the whole of South America.
Little bit of my exhibition in Costa Rica. They know how to party! 🤣🇨🇷 🎯 pic.twitter.com/9PAnOG32oo
— Diogo Portela (@brazilliant180) December 3, 2019
Darts events are now played in Costa Rica and Argentina, and the sport is slowly but surely growing in Latin America, and that’s predominantly down to Diogo Portela – a man carrying not only a country, but a continent on his back.
Alexandra Palace will welcome Diogo Portela through its gates for a third time as he takes on Josh Payne on Wednesday, December 18 in his William Hill World Darts Championship opener.
Photography: Yann Hellers