By Akash Anurag.
On the midnight of March 4, 1918, celebrations were at fever pitch in the Nacional half of Montevideo. Earlier, on March 3, they had thumped Charley FC (now defunct) by three goals to one and looked well on course to win their consecutive fourth league title, thus continuing a spell of domestic league domination stretching back to 1915.
As the celebrations stretched deep into the night, some players and members of the staff caught a glimpse of a familiar yet highly respected figure leaving the party.
Little did they know something was about to happen that would indelibly alter the course of the club’s history and its culture for the next century or so.
Abdón Porte was born in 1893 to a working-class family in the agricultural breadbasket region of Durazno in central Uruguay.
Hailing from a working-class family, grit and hard work had been hardwired in the very veins of young Abdón. This pretty much shaped the tough-tackling, hard-working midfield play which was to become synonymous with him during his football career.
Porte knew that the agricultural region of Durazno could provide little vent to his talent as a footballer. In order to make his mark, he shifted base to Montevideo in 1908 at the age of 15. He would soon find himself in the ranks of Colón Fútbol Club for whom he would go on to make his debut in 1910.
Colón was a recently formed club back then and did not participate in the Uruguayan top division. However, Porte would soon get his shot at top division football when in 1911, witnessing his footballing talents, Libertad, a relegation fighting outfit in the top division (now defunct) signed him for the remainder of the 1910 season.
Despite performing superbly in the heart of the Libertad defence, Porte could do little in arresting the fall of the Club as his team found itself relegated from the Uruguayan Primera Division at the end of the 1911 season.
As Porte prepared for life in the second division, little did he know that soon he was to embark on a journey that would result in making him an immortal figure in the annals of Uruguayan Football.
Club Nacional de Football ranks amongst one of the most iconic and historic football institutions on the South American Continent.
Formed in 1899 in Montevideo — the result of the merging of Montevideo Football Club and Uruguay Athletic Club — the club with 47 domestic league titles, three Copa Libertadores titles and three Intercontinental Cups, alongside a host of other titles in its kitty, boasts of a trophy cabinet that ranks amongst the best in world football.
The club’s home since 1901, the Gran Parque Central was one of the first venues in the world to host a FIFA World Cup game when the USA defeated Belgium 3-0 in one of the first games of the 1930 tournament.
At the time of their birth, Nacional was more of a club of the elites and had a strict policy of signing players from only the upper echelons of the Uruguayan society.
This was about to change when in the club’s general assembly of 1911 (popularly dubbed as the Schism of 1911), the faction led by Jose Maria Delgado, secured a decisive victory over the elitist minority.
This event is often referred to as the turning point in Nacional’s history and club culture as it opened the doors of the club to footballers from all sections of society.
Delgado would hold the position of the club president till 1921, a period during which he would completely transform the club from that of the elites to that of the people.
Delgado’s victory in the 1911 elections had opened the doors of the club to talent sans their societal affiliation and one of the first footballers to be signed under Delgado’s presidency was the 18-year-old Porte whose performances in the last season for a relegated Libertard had caught the eyes of Nacional.
In many ways, Porte was the signature signing under Delgado to stamp the fact that the transformation of Nacional from the elites club to that of the people was on the march.
103 años del fallecimiento de Abdon Porte. La vida por Nacional🔵⚪🔴
Como ha sido, Y va a seguir siendo, Por la sangre de abdon pic.twitter.com/ePuK9cncqN
— 2 en 4 dias (@2en4dias) March 5, 2021
An 18-year-old Porte would pull on the famous white jersey for the first time on March 12, 1911, making his debut in a Primera Division game against Dublin FC at right-back.
Porte, with his no-nonsense style of football, work rate and aerial dominance soon became an integral part of a Nacional team that took Uruguayan football by storm in that decade.
For the Nacional fans, a young Porte from a humble background, fighting for every inch of the pitch symbolized the idea of Garra Charrua, a philosophy integral to Uruguayan football and the Uruguayan way of life.
The passion for the Nacional colours which oozed from Porte’s performances every time he was on the pitch further endeared him to the Nacional fans. One of Nacional’s greatest heroes was born.
Soon, El Indio (The Indian, as the fans named him for his fighting spirit) was made the captain of a Nacional Side which would win 19 titles in total during the period between 1912 and 1917. This included four league titles (1912, 1915, 1916, 1917) and nine domestic cups, including a historic domestic treble in 1915.
While Porte’s stock at the club was on a rise, these five years also marked the time when Porte earned his three caps for the Uruguay national team.
He was also a part of the Uruguayan national team that triumphed at the Copa America in 1917, though he did not play a game at the competition.
On the personal side, Porte had a happy life too. He was excelling at football and Nacional, two of his most loved things in life while also falling in love with a woman he was to marry in April of 1918.
A guy in his mid-20s with 19 titles to his name, captaining the most successful club sides in Uruguay, fan’s hero and happy personal life — a perfectly balanced life, one could say.
Porte was living his dream when tragedy truck on May 27, 1917. Ten minutes into an Albion Cup game at the old Belvedere ground, Porte suffered a grave injury to his knee. Knowing that his beloved Nacional would have to see off the game with 10 men (substitutes were not allowed at that time), Porte somehow managed to play the rest of the match with the injured knee.
Although it was seen as a heroic act out of a pure passion for the team, this aggravated the injury and as a result, he had to sit out for a month.
— Artistrean (@artistrean) March 5, 2021
Meanwhile, in order to cover for Porte as he recovered from his injury, Nacional signed a young Alfredo Zibecchi.
Porte returned to captain the side after missing a month of football but the knee injury came back time and again to restrict his appearances in the 1917 season, with Zibecchi starting in his place as a result.
He captained Nacional to a draw on November 11, 1917 which ensured the club went on to win a third successive league title with bitter rivals Penarol finishing just behind them.
This also meant that Nacional, on account of winning the League three times in succession, also became the first Uruguayan club to retain the trophy for good.
This remains one of the most celebrated events in Uruguay’s football history and the crowning achievement of Porte’s career as a player and captain of Nacional.
As the 1918 season began, it was but clear Porte was not the same enforcer in midfield or the heart of the Nacional defense as he had been for the last five years since he made his debut in 1912.
The knee injury never healed and coupled due to his usual physical style of play the drop in his performance level was there for everyone to see.
He simply could not be the player he once was. The doctors had already told him that his playing career was almost done. Porte also knew about this but him being a fighter, he was not ready to give up.
But his body gave way and he was slowly relegated to the bench. The club management also made it clear he was welcome to stay at the club for all that he had given to it but would have to accept his diminished role.
As his appearances dropped he was enveloped in a dark cloud of depression. He had been the man in action, fighting it out and enforcing his authority in midfield.
It was quite difficult for him to sit in the dugout and watch his brothers battle it out for the glory of his beloved Nacional.
In Porte’s times, sitting out as a substitute was inconsequential as substitutions were not allowed during a game. It felt like he was waiting — waiting for an opportunity to have a last hurrah in his beloved Nacional white.
That opportunity soon came in when on March 3, 1918, he was surprisingly picked to start and lead the team in a league clash against Charely FC.
That day, Porte played his heart out. The match finished 3-1 in favour of Nacional, and maybe somewhere down the line, Porte, the wizard knew that he had performed his last triumphant act for his beloved club.
Nacional and football had been so integral to his existence that it was very difficult to imagine life beyond them. They had been like the Jacobian ladder out of obscurity for an ambitious lad hard-wired with grit and hailing from a humble background.
Nothing summarises his state of mind better than what he said to his brother, Juan, on the day following his appearance against Charley.
“Juan, my life without Nacional and without football makes no sense.”
As he left the Nacional headquarters and the team party, little did his teammates know about what would they wake up to the next morning.
The streets of Montevideo wore a deserted look at 1 am on March 5, 1918. A tram screeched to a halt in the vicinity of the Estadio Gran Parque Central.
Porte slowly made his way towards the stadium like a showman making his way to the stage for his final performance.
It is difficult to fathom what his thoughts must have been as he knelt in the centre of the pitch, somewhere around his usual midfield position.
He slowly took out his gun and shot himself in the theatre where he had left spectators spellbound with his magic called football. He was only 25.
The Montevideo and Nacional family woke up to sad news that morning. Porte’s body had been found in the morning by the dog of the club’s groundsman.
Beside him lay his straw hat, under which he had left behind two letters. While one was meant for his mother and girlfriend (whom he was due to marry in April), the other was addressed to Dr. Jose Maria Delgado, Nacional’s president who had brought him to the club.
In his letter to Delgado, Porte requested the club to take care of his family after him and to bury him at the La Teja Cemetery alongside club legends Carlos and Bolivar Cespedes.
Like a seasoned performer bidding adieu to his theatre, he finished the letter with a truly dramatic finish with a verse that explained what Nacional meant to him:
Nacional, though in dust converted
And in the dust forever loved
I shall never forget an instant
How much I have loved you
Porte’s death sent shockwaves across Uruguay. Rivals such as Penarol stood in solidarity with the grieving club.
He was buried as per his wishes at the La Teja alongside other Nacional legends. Five days after his death, Montevideo Wanderers played a friendly against Nacional with all the proceeds going to the Porte family.
All through the game, the stadium wore a sense of emptiness as the crowd looked for a familiar presence commanding the midfield, fighting for every inch of the pitch, only to miss him all the more.
It is more than 100 years since that tragic night, yet Porte’s legacy and memory live on. One of the stands of the Grand Parque Stadium is named after him.
On the 100th anniversary of his death, his beloved Nacional issued a special jersey to remember his contributions to the club, while the government of Uruguay issued a special postal stamp in his honor.
One may romanticise Porte’s death as much as one wants, but it is grim reminder of the level of mental stress a footballer at the top level of the game is subject to and the vulnerability of a football career, especially those affected by injury.
Despite the fact that money is everywhere in the modern game, and there are plenty of complaints that modern football is all about money, football has and always will be the beautiful game. Romanticism is an important part of its soul.
The stories of one-club legends, such as Francesco Totti or Allessandro Del Piero, sticking with clubs through difficult times are one of the many aspects of that romantic element of the beautiful soul of the game.
Unlike these legends, Porte’s story is a bit different. While these legends retired from the game at one point or the other, Porte has been ever-present at Nacional, still helping them win games to this day.
It has been more than a century since his death, yet Nacional still relies on him to win crucial games.
One can spot giant banners at Nacional games at the Gran Parque Central which read: “By the blood of Abdón” or “For Abdón’s blood”, the accompanying chants urging the home team to fight for every inch of the pitch the way El Indio did.
On March 5, 1918, Porte did not die. He just freed his soul from the shackles of the human cage allowing it to be one with his Nacional, helping them win games without ever having to give up on what he loved doing the most — playing football for Nacional.