Rocha: Unforgettable Pompey

An ever-popular figure at Fratton Park who continues to be held in high esteem by Pompey fans, Ricardo Rocha answers questions from Sam Gale at the Gosport Globe.

Sam: Ricardo, you were born on October 3, 1978, in Santo Tirso, on the north-west coast of Portugal. What was it like growing up in Portugal?

Ricardo:  It was good and normal. It was different times back then, so we played outside all the time and football was everything to us as kids so we were always playing in the backyard, in the streets, at school… it was all we had.

Sam: You started off your youth career at a Portuguese club, ARC Areias, at the age of 12. You were there for five years. What was it like being scouted at that age and did you have the aspiration from a young age to become a footballer?

Ricardo: I had the aspiration to become a footballer but I knew it would be almost impossible. I played in Areias, a very small club, but I only did that because my school was about five minutes from their stadium, so they went there to attract kids to play for them.

That time I was a goalkeeper and we played 5-a-side football. It was a big change for me starting to play 11-a-side football but very good to develop at an early age.

Sam: Who did you look up to as a child? With Portugal being filled with high quality players, you must have been spoilt for choice.

Ricardo: My team in Portugal was always Benfica, so I always looked up to their players. They had some great defenders at that time so I always tried to copy them and see how they played to improve myself.

Sam: You joined two other teams in youth, the others being Famalicão and Vitória Guimarães. What was the appeal for you moving to these clubs?

Ricardo: Well, my manager at the time spoke with a friend in Famalicao so I went there to train. They wanted to keep me but my club was asking for money and they didn’t have it. So I returned and played that season with Areias. Next season they came again and they knew they had to offer something to take me.

So one day, I still remember, a Sunday morning, the director of Famalicao came to my house, rang my doorbell and I open it. He showed me a letter asking if that was my name. I said yes. He said: “Congratulations, you are a Famalicao player!” They paid €1,000, which was a lot of money back then but it was a great feeling. I played all season with Famalicao under 17 but the club was struggling in the senior team in the championship and financially.

Around three-quarters of the season they offered me a semi professional contract and I started to train with the senior team. In one of those trainings we played Vitoria Guimaraes in a friendly and the manager of the under-18’s was there and he liked me. At the end of the season he asked if I could go on loan to Guimaraes because I was still under contract. They agreed, so I played the next season with them.

Sam: Starting with Braga, where you played some of your first top division games, at that point Braga were Europa League candidates. At 22, it must have been a great achievement, still at the start of your career, to be in with a chance of playing in a European competition against some of the world’s best.

Ricardo: Braga was getting bigger as a club at that time. Before I played in the team they were playing some Europa League games, so when the offer from them came I was overwhelmed.

My first year contract I made the pre-season with them but I was so young and the team so experienced that I went on loan back to Famalicao, who were in League 1.

The next year Braga made a reserve team — called a B team here — which played in League 1 as well, a new project which was good for all of us and the club was developing players.

It was only in the next season I had the chance to play for the first team against Sporting. One defender was injured, the other one had a two-game suspension, so finally I had my chance in a big game. I made a great game, we won 3-1 and then my career on the highest level was on.

Sam: December 2001, you joined arguably one of the biggest teams in Portugal in Benfica, where your ex-Braga team mates Armando Sa and Tiago — who have both had successful careers themselves — played. When you joined, where they the two players you instantly gravitated towards or were there other players you became close friends with?

Ricardo: Armando was a team-mate but Tiago and I became really good friends and we still are. We became mates in Braga, followed that in Benfica and then we had to split career wise.

Both of them went straight to Benfica but because Braga supporters were not happy with that deal one of us had to stay, so it was me! I had some problems with that because every time the team lost, as I had already a contract with Benfica, people would put all the blame on me, which was not easy. But that’s football sometimes.

Sam: You played the most games for Benfica, you played 157 times, including 33 games European competitions (Europa League and Champions League). Do you feel this was the pinnacle of your career and were there any particular matches that stood out in your mind playing for SLB?

Ricardo: I played for the club I cheered since I was a kid, so that was amazing for me. Making so many games, playing Europa League, Champions league, winning trophies it’s something I will never, never forget. There’s a lot of games, the ones I won the Cup, Super Cup and the League were outstanding but playing quarter finals of Champions League against the best player in the world at that time, Ronaldinho, that was awesome.

Sam: One match that I feel anyone would love to ask about, the Champions League quarter-final first leg, you were given the difficult task of marking Barcelona and Brazil legend Ronaldinho. Although for the neutrals it may have been a boring 0-0 draw, for you and the team it must have been sensational to gain a draw against a team with the calibre of Barcelona?

Ricardo: Imagine playing against a team like Barcelona with Deco, Ronaldinho, Iniesta, Xavi, Eto’o, Puyol. Quarter-finals of Champions League, that was just unbelievable and I thank God for that. We drew 0-0 at home, didn’t make any faults during the game against Ronaldinho and lost 2-0 in the Camp Nou. And Barca were European champions that year!

Sam: In 2007, you moved from your home country to England to join Tottenham Hotspur, for £3.2 million. At the time did you feel your price was justified or is £3 million way more than enough for anyone?

Ricardo: I think at that time the price in euros was around €5 million so that’s a lot for a defender. It was an opportunity for me to make a contribution to Benfica for all the investment in me and the opportunity for me to play in the Premier League in a big team like Tottenham.

Sam: When you played your first game in the FA Cup against Southend, the general conception until recently was that English football is rougher in terms of hard tackles. Did you feel that when you came?

Ricardo: It was my first game and I think I played really well. It was a hard game and I knew that day that it wouldn’t be easy. We were playing, I think, a League One side at the time, Southend. But it was very difficult. I even got stitched on my chin so it was, like, “welcome to English football Rocha”! But we won and that was the most important.

Sam: You stayed in England for two years, then moved to Standard Liege in the Belgian First Division. Was there any other teams at the time that were vying for your signature?

Ricardo: There were a lot a teams with interest at the time, but I had more than a year without playing football, just on the reserves and I came from an injury during that time that kept me out for some time.

So teams were afraid of how I was physically and were always asking for me to go and have a trial with them for a while to see how I was. But I didn’t want that, so I was saying no to all of them. Then came Standard Liege with a former manager I played against in Portugal and I thought it was the best place to give a new go to my career.

Sam: Returning to England after a short spell, you opted for the South Coast, Portsmouth being the destination, home to one of the best fan bases in England. Was this one of the things that brought you to the club?

Ricardo: Honestly, Standard Liege was great for me physically because I worked very hard to be in great shape again. In January I thought leaving was the best for me.

The team was struggling and they wanted to change things around and I didn’t feel good with that. I thought I was going elsewhere but Portsmouth came up, had to decide in two hours and it was a chance of playing in the Premier League again and prove to myself I could do it. I knew the club was struggling with a lot of problems but it was a fantastic opportunity for me. So it was a risk but one that was spot on!

Sam: What is it like playing at Fratton Park compared to Stade de France?

Ricardo: Well, I played in the Stade de France against Lille with 90,000 people and it was fantastic. But Fratton is special. I was so nervous on my first game and unfortunately I got a red card for a professional foul.

I thought the fans would not like me in the next game but their support was just unbelievable. You feel something different there. Fans are amazing, respectful if you give 100 per cent and are honest with what you do on the pitch. They love football and I think the combination of amazing fans with a special Fratton makes it unforgettable.

Sam: You played against Southampton. The ball was rolling out, you then kicked the ball into the crowd subsequently hitting a fan and then having a bit of ‘afters’ with current Liverpool player Adam Lallana. What was going through your head when it all happened?

Ricardo: What a rivalry, amazing atmosphere in both games. So in that one I cut the ball and it was a corner. I tried to kick the ball against the publicity board but unfortunately I missed and hit the fans. I went to apologise because it wasn’t my intention but they were screaming at me and wanted to come onto the pitch.

I apologised anyway and when I went back, Lallana started shouting at me. I explained that I didn’t mean that and was apologising. Then he started to insult me, so I was not having any of that.

My instinct was to slap him and say for him to shut up. But when I did that, inside of me I was like, “Ohhh I’m getting a red, I’m f****d”. So when the ref called me and showed me the yellow I was, like, “Thank you”. I was really lucky with that one!

Sam: You played for your country six times. You lived every boy’s dream of walking out with your country’s badge on the shirt. What were your feelings before your first game for Portugal?

Ricardo: That’s the ultimate goal in a footballer’s career, playing for your country and that dream became real for me.

I could’ve played more for my country but at the time there were a lot of good Portuguese central defenders so it wasn’t easy. Even if it was only one time I would be grateful for that, so six was amazing. My only sadness was never having the chance to play in a big tournament for my country but it doesn’t matter.

Sam: You have played against some extraordinary players over your career including Iniesta, Rooney and Van der Sar. Who do you feel was the best player you came up against and played with?

Ricardo:  I would have to say Ronaldinho but I had the chance to play against such talented players and I can name a few more: Ibrahimovic, old Ronaldo, Saha, Vieri, Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Van Nistelrooy and so on.

Sam: Are you satisfied with the career you had and is there anything you would have liked to have changed?

Ricardo: I am. Again I thank God for that. Beginning in such a small club like Areias as a goalkeeper, to playing for Braga, Benfica my childhood club, in the Premier League with Tottenham and Portsmouth, playing for my country. Honestly I couldn’t ask for more.

Sam: How would like to be remembered?

Ricardo: Like I was on the pitch, gave everything I had, felt and gave my best for all the clubs I played for and was always 100 per cent professional, even when clubs weren’t treating me properly.

Off the pitch what I really am, a normal and very respectful family guy and very educated. Now a new chapter begins and I’m looking forward for an opportunity to start working and pass on all the experience I had as a professional at the highest level.

Photo: Pompey Press

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