Argentina's greatest rugby player Hugo Porta is still directing operations beautifully, just not from outhalf. At 68 years old he is doing it off the field as president for his beloved Banco Nacional club. Locked down in his home in the San Fernando suburb of Buenos Aires, Porta is swiftly co-ordinating the distribution of food parcels from the club's players and officials to the city's poorest districts.
His voluntary work as club president is a labour of love and reminds him of the rugby that he loves. Porta remains passionate about the free-flowing amateur game that is played by people of all backgrounds and motivations. Porta is compelling company, first in English, then for the next hour in Spanish where he can truly express the role rugby has played in an extraordinary life.
In 1973, the young Porta experienced his first overseas tour with the Pumas in Ireland and Scotland. Porta's slim moulded boots hadn't experienced soft, heavy pitches and a sharp, biting wind that pierced his body in slow moments of play. Above everything, he remembers strong friendships that were forged against Ireland in a physical encounter at Lansdowne Road that Ireland won 21-8.
"There was always physicality between Ireland and Argentina in rugby. I remember the year before that tour in '73, Ireland played in Argentina, and an Irish prop grabbed our prop and ripped the Puma emblem clean off his shirt.
“The rivalry between the countries has always existed, but so has friendship. Friendship has always existed between Ireland and Argentina. I don’t know why, but we are always matched together in the World Cup somehow. Still, our rivalry is good, as long as the rules of the game are respected and that the game is played with a sporting spirit. I have always felt in Ireland things are just that little bit more fun and the people are so lovely.”
Porta played in 58 Tests for Argentina from 1971 until 1990. An architect by trade, he used his immaculate kicking and fearless running to drag the Pumas into the international rugby spotlight. In 1985, Porta was awarded sportsman of the year in Argentina. He defeated Diego Maradona who was at the peak of his powers at Napoli and about to send the nation into raptures in the 1986 World Cup. Porta still looks back on the award with a sense of amazement given the place that football holds in his country's heart.
“In my time, the Pumas didn’t play very often and the fact that I had come from a club that wasn’t one of these elite clubs, and I had managed to make it to be captain of the Pumas and had been lucky enough to score many points in our matches, well for me it was incredible praise.
Rugby taught me to share, and rugby taught me to help others. This was something that I had not learnt previously when I played tennis and I was completely selfish
“It was also great for rugby as a sport as a whole to be recognised in1985, and it was truly incredible to be selected as the most popular sportsman in the country. You know what football in Argentina is like and what Maradona has meant for Argentinians. They say that we can forgive Maradona of pretty much anything, given how happy he has made us over the years, any debts are paid and pardoned!”
Porta's beginnings in rugby were relatively inauspicious. He played a wide variety of sports at a local social club, with football perhaps being his best sport. Porta's ability with his feet had started to generate praise at outhalf on the rugby field for the Banco Nacional club, but more significantly, from the professional football scouts of Bueno Aires' giant Boca Juniors.
“When I started to play rugby, I played rugby on Saturdays and Sundays I went to play football with some ex-football players from professional teams, and we played against teams from the first division in Argentina. Thanks to my rugby training, I was stronger than most of the football players, and there was a bit of chatter amongst them that this ‘rugby’ player should probably dedicate himself to football.
"Then one day, a great Argentinian football player called Amadeo Carrizo, said to me 'You have got to play football', but I thought he made a mistake, that he had meant to say rugby. So, joking, said to him 'Well the only team I would play football for would be Boca Juniors'. This was on a Sunday, and the next Tuesday, the trainer of Boca Juniors called me up on the phone to say 'They tell me that you are going to come to play football for us?'. You see I was already playing rugby, so I just said no, no I'm a rugby player, I'll carry on playing football as just a hobby."
Porta’s whole life has been dedicated on and off the field to the Banco Nacional club. He strongly believes that his club has played a vital role in making rugby more of an egalitarian sport in Argentina. Formerly, rugby had been the preserve of elite private members clubs and old boy unions of famous schools. Banco Nacional was a team of plumbers, painters, doctors and lawyers who came to dominate the Pumas line-up. Porta’s devotion to his club taught him lessons in rugby that he relished.
“Rugby taught me to share, and rugby taught me to help others. This was something that I had not learnt previously when I played tennis and I was completely selfish, whereas rugby taught me to be part of a team, to be able to share, to be able to help others. Aside from that, I also felt a sense of freedom on the rugby pitch, complete and total happiness. I always say that today rugby is like medicine. There aren’t many GPs, but there are tonnes of specialists. There’s lineout specialists, back play specialists, but there are very, very few coaches who say to kids, just grab the ball and run.”
Porta enjoys following the Pumas in international Tests and remains a revered figure in World Rugby, but he doesn't follow the politics of the professional game, even the closely contested election for World Rugby chairman between his compatriot Agustin Pichot and the eventual victor Bill Beaumont.
“For me, this is rugby I just don’t know, I’m just not familiar with it. I fight for the other rugby, the rugby played in clubs, I am the president of my club that has 400 players, and some of our players can’t pay the monthly fee, so we share our money amongst us all.
“This means that I don’t really know much about the politics of [professional] rugby and I’m a little out of my depth when commenting. Pichot has been a leader of a generation. Still, I always say that rugby in Argentina has been played for 120 years. Each of us has taken turns to write our generation’s page of rugby in Argentina’s story.”
Porta's ability to act as a natural diplomat and his status as one of rugby's greatest players eventually led him to become Argentina's ambassador to South Africa in the dying days of apartheid in 1991. He had a front-row seat in the tough and tentative early steps of the proposed Rainbow Nation as Nelson Mandela painstakingly negotiated terms with South Africa's then president FW De Klerk. Porta had always combined his career as a rugby player in running his family business that fitted kitchens across Buenos Aires. President Carlos Menem was determined to re-establish diplomatic negotiations with South Africa and wanted Porta installed in the ambassador's chair in Pretoria.
“We are very proud of having been there as a family, through of all the negotiations and all the changes of South Africa. You see many people don’t realise it was a new country. It needed a new flag, a new anthem and a new armed forces. There were significant changes. Only a person like president Mandela, with his knowledge and his aptitude, could have managed it, and in a way, we must say De Klerk played a major role too. When I eventually walked into the president’s house for Mandela’s inauguration, it was unbelievable; it was like a movie because most of the personalities of the world were there.
"I said hello to the king of Spain, and I turn, and I was facing Fidel Castro. And I shake his hand, and I say you know my mother was born in Cuba, so 50 per cent of my blood is Cuban, and I had a nice chat with him. Apart from that, I was blessed by president Mandela, as I had a personal relationship with him."
Porta was there in 1995 to witness Mandela proudly wear Francois Pienaar's Springbok jersey in 1995 in the World Cup final when the fledgling Rainbow Nation became world champions. Five years later in Monaco at the Laureus World Sports Awards, Mandela made a speech where he said that sport can change the world. After experiencing exhausting and rewarding years as a diplomat in Pretoria, the joyous 1995 World Cup final in Johannesburg, crystallised Porta's ambition to use his sporting profile for good. He has since devoted a large amount of his time to charity work for the Laureus Sport for Good programme.
Porta politely excuses himself; he needs to ensure that the food parcels from Banco Nacional are getting out to the community
“Laureus for me is a second opportunity that sport personally gave me. The first opportunity was to play rugby, to try to become a star. Now I have a chance to work to ensure that others become stars. I want to ensure young people can enjoy a childhood, a youth that is rich and full. Because what we do is work, through sports, to combat aggression and maltreatment. What we do in Argentina is try to support projects where the wider community is involved, and that sports are an excuse to be able to bring young people together, to educate them to ensure their health and well-being improves so that their youth is enjoyable as possible and they go on to lead a better life.”
Porta politely excuses himself; he needs to ensure that the food parcels from Banco Nacional are getting out to the community, and he wants to make sure that the players are coping well in lockdown. Porta compliments my Spanish and says there is always a standing invitation for an “asado” barbecue at his house in Buenos Aires if I ever feel like visiting.
Still universally and affectionately known by the whole of Argentina as “Hugito”, he continues to read the play perfectly, long after he wore Argentina’s iconic number 10 jersey.