Diogo Portela is a trailblazer. Based in Barnes after growing up in Rio de Janeiro as an aspiring footballer, he became the first Brazilian to reach the PDC World Darts Championship when he took on Peter Wright at Alexandra Palace last December. He lost but impressed those who watched him win a set against the world’s second-ranked player.
“We talk football and then we talk Pele,” Portela laughs as we sit at his dining room table over a breakfast spread. “There is no comparison. They are two different subjects.”
The immortal status of Brazil’s greatest ever footballer extends well beyond his own sport. Indeed, the importance of Pele as a cultural icon has long since transcended football not only in Brazil, but throughout the world. In a sense, there is a similarity between that osmosis of Pele into mainstream culture and the role that Portela knows that he now bears on his shoulders.
Brazilian sportsmen bring with them an insatiable magnetism for goodwill, such is the charisma and sense of carnival associated with their every move. Portela is no different, taking to the stage as ‘The Braziliant’ in an iconic yellow shirt, adorned with the famous number ten on its back. It is a darting persona that screams Brazil; the choice of attire is, he admits, a nod to his sporting idols.
“I was a big football fan growing up,” Portela explains. “If I have one sporting idol, it would be Ronaldo for what he has done. Everything he has done, he has achieved with three knees.
“It is not easy to be the best in the world, get an injury, come back a year and a half later and be the best again. And then to be the main player in a World Cup-winning side is quite a bounce back. If he hadn’t had these three knee problems, we would be comparing him with Pele.”
Of course, when Portela speaks of Ronaldo, he refers to the first man to dominate world football with that famous name, the flawed genius who single-handedly secured the 2002 World Cup for his football-obsessed nation.
It is a fitting answer in a summer of World Cups. In three weeks’ time, Portela will have his eyes fixated on Russia, where he is optimistic about his nation’s chances of glory. He has a greater vested interest than many, having spent his formative years playing alongside Marcelo, now a four-time Champions League winner to go with his 52 international caps.
“I tried to be a professional footballer,” he says. “I was very good, to be honest. Marcelo was the best player, but we had a very good team. Obviously though, Marcelo was the man of the match every week. He went to Fluminense, a big club in Rio, and six months later he ended up at Real Madrid.
“I injured my ankle soon afterwards and was out for eight months. When I came back, I just wasn’t at that same level anymore. I was getting to university age and I had to make a choice of studying or football, and I think I made the right choice.
“At university, I started playing proper darts. It was in 2010 when I decided to have a real go and start practicing regularly. I started getting to finals and then just continued to get better after that.”
Before Brazil arrive in Russia however, Portela has his own dream to live alongside Bruno Rangel. On Thursday, the World Cup of Darts gets underway in Frankfurt, where darts has never been so popular. Last week, 20,000 people crowded into the Veltins Arena in Gelsenkirchen for the World Series.
Portela took part last year as Brazil made their debut in the competition, beating Switzerland in a dramatic last leg decider. This year, he is joined by Rangel – a lifelong family friend more than twenty years Portela’s senior. For both men, the opportunity to represent such a proud country is the ultimate sporting pipedream.
“When I left Brazil, people didn’t believe in me. They said I was crazy – that it’s very hard, that I was just a young guy with too much in my head, that I was thinking too much,” Portela recalls.
The notion of a Brazilian darts player was, quite simply, alien to the vast majority. A move to England soon became a job as a data analyst with L’Oreal, before Portela used the expiry of his contract to take up darts full-time.
“Three years later, I had the opportunity to play in the World Cup for Brazil,” Portela gushes.
“Bruno used to play pairs alongside my father – he’s a five-time Brazilian champion with my dad. Since I started playing darts, I’ve known Bruno and he’s really part of the family. It’s good to have him here. He deserves it for all that he’s done.”
Portela’s impeccable English means that he can easily translate Rangel’s Portuguese from the other end of the table, where he is sipping on his tea. He laughs as he recalls the first time the pair played against each other back in Rio.
“He cried when he beat me for the first time,” Rangel says of his protégé.
The respect between the pair is extraordinary and their natural chemistry gives them encouragement as they arrive in Germany as rank outsiders.
“Representing Brazil at darts is an amazing feeling – it’s almost like Cool Runnings,” Rangel explains of his status as a relative unknown.
The parallels between the stories are obvious; if Jamaicans appear out of place as they skid down the ice, the sight of Brazilians at the oche is an equally paradoxical notion.
It is an image that exists dramatically out of kilter with the lazy, antiquated stereotypes of darts’ position as a sport. Like Gerwyn Price, the Welshman who left a career in professional rugby for the board, Portela’s image – an ankle injury away from professional football – is an antidote to the sceptics.
“The doors that have been opened in the PDC because of Diogo are new and exciting for us,” Rangel says of his friend’s impact.
“I went to one of the Pro Tour events this weekend and was just amazed by everything that I saw there – the players that I’d usually see on the television back in Brazil.
“I was just amazed by the whole structure that’s in place. Diogo’s example shows that everything is possible. He showed that if you come here, are determined, focused and work hard, then there is a place for you here.”
Rangel’s admiration for his teammate highlights the 30-year-old’s importance to the future of the sport and the unique opportunity for growth that Portela’s rise has afforded darts in Brazil.
“Every sport needs an idol,” Rangel says. “We have had Pele, Ronaldo, Romario, Zico, now we have Neymar. But with darts, people are looking at Diogo as the guy that can break the barriers between just being a pub game and being a sport in Brazil.”
Although Portela has struggled to find the results to match his performances since his World Championship debut, his impact on darts in Brazil is clear. The sport has struggled in recent years after a crackdown on the betting companies and casinos, which had previously provided much-needed financial support. However, with The Braziliant’s rise has come increased interest in the game back home.
“We are getting more and more exposure in the media now but it’s still hard to find new players,” he says.
“That’s why it’s my objective to build an academy over there. When we had a sponsor for the game in Brazil, we used to have 1,000 players on the tour and it was very competitive. Now, we have 10% of that.
“It’s a work in progress and we have to go step-by-step but we’re going to build it up again – I’m sure of that. We’ve never been as prepared as we are now in terms of media and sponsorship. The structure we have is good. It’s just a case of finding new players now.”
To the ears of the ever-expanding Professional Darts Corporation, the notion of a thriving tour in Brazil must sound like liquid gold. With arenas and television audiences consistently smashing records, combining the PDC’s razzmatazz with Brazil’s samba lifestyle would be yet another sign of the sport’s progress.
“Everyone says to me all the time: ‘Diogo, when are you going to get an exhibition organised in Brazil? Why can’t we have a tournament on Copacabana beach with everyone in bikinis?’ I’m realistic though about it. This is why I want to start an academy over there. The sooner I start it, the sooner there will be more players and the sooner there will be better players. That’s the aim – to grow the sport.
“If we can get children playing, then it opens the door for their parents to play as well and get to know people there. It could lead to bigger tournaments there. I know that people would love to have a World Series competition there but who would go to watch?
“We don’t have an audience to come and pay for tickets. I could guarantee selling about 100 seats. I would rather take the sport over to Brazil once there is some kind of structure in place, so we could bring thousands of people to watch. I don’t want to have 50 people watching.”
It is an issue that Portela is determined to resolve and, having experienced London’s climate since settling in the capital in 2014, it is one that he is confident of fixing. While the lures of Rio’s beaches might be too difficult to tackle, he believes that the country’s urban areas – packed with bars that rule the cities’ social scene – would feast on a diet of darts.
As talk continues of Brazil’s unlikely darting revolution, Portela pauses to add a name to his list of sporting heroes. Ronaldo and Pele are joined by Tony O’Shea, the three-time BDO World Championship runner-up. It is a standout moment of an entertaining hour. A polite – if surprised – chuckle turns to intrigue as Portela explains how the Stockport-born 57-year-old has come to mean so much to the boy from Brazil.
“When I started playing darts we didn’t have the internet,” he points out. “We would watch a lot of videos and, of course, the majority of the videos were about John Lowe and Eric Bristow and, really, that was it.
“But there was one player that at every single international event welcomed the Brazilian team, and that was Tony O’Shea. He was very good friends with my dad, they are very close. Even now when I play on the Challenge Tour with Tony, he asks how my father is.
“He was an English hero and a great darts player, but I’d see him sitting at the same table, so he got my respect.
“He became my idol when I was young. When you’re like us and you’re nothing, and there are big names who sit with you and talk with you, they get my respect. That is the kind of person that I’m trying to be. John Part is another one – he would sit at our table with me and every time he sees me on the Pro Tour, he’d come over to me and take me for a drink and to talk about my dad and my family. I have so much time and respect for these big names who would come and sit with us.”
However, as the Brazilian pair touch down in Germany for the World Cup, Portela and Rangel will be sat alongside the greats of the modern game; Van Gerwen, Van Barneveld, Cross, Chisnall, Anderson, Wright – the list is endless.
Brazil have been drawn to take on Denmark in the first round. It is no walkover, but it does at least mean that the South Americans will face another unseeded pair.
Portela is unfazed by it all. “I know we can match them,” he says. “If we play our best and things go our way, we have a great chance. I didn’t even watch the draw – I watched it for the World Championship and I got Peter Wright!”
He is banking on last year’s astonishing debut win over Switzerland to act as motivation for another crack at this year’s tournament. With Brazil 4-1 up, the Swiss pair broke twice to bring the match level ahead of a final leg. Portela’s partner, Alex Sattin, found the double 20 to win Brazil’s first ever PDC World Cup match.
“It was the best feeling of my darts career,” he recalls, a wide smile pinned to his face. “It was bigger than anything I’d done. The importance of giving Brazil their first win in a professional tournament showed that we deserved to be there. It was proof that we can compete.”
As Portela and Rangel slip on the famous yellow shirts on Thursday, they will do so in the knowledge that they have what it takes to raise the roof and make an impact that will be heard back in Rio.
“We would love to win the first game,” Portela admits. “But if we don’t, being there will open doors and help to provide exposure. It’s a fantastic opportunity. Bruno can go back to Brazil afterwards and say: ‘Guys, this is the dream.’