Luis Boa Morte: 'I'm always able and ready and up for the fight. I'm not going to turn my back'
The Portuguese international returns to Craven Cottage today having endured a miserable first year at West Ham but, as he tells Mike Rowbottom, he has worked too hard getting where he is to give up now
Saturday 23 February 2008
Luis Boa Morte is on the spot, and clearly growing a little anxious. Behind his back, a slide screen shows a drawing of something which 20 eager pupils of West Ham Church School, seated in front of him, are striving to communicate – without using the word itself.
"It's quite big," shouts out one eager girl in a red sweatshirt. Well, that's narrowed it down a bit...
"You use it to do things," offers another. The picture is still not crystal clear to West Ham's famously spiky midfielder, who at this moment is looking like a puzzled boy.
"It helps you think," comes suggestion number three. Not quite correct, but it has the desired effect as Boa Morte – the day's guest player/mentor at West Ham's thriving Learning Zone project with local schools – announces with relief that he is sitting in front of a brain. If only all of his challenges could be solved as straightforwardly.
The Portuguese international's last appearance in the West Ham team, when they secured a 1-0 home win over Liverpool at the end of January, saw him substituted on the hour to a chorus of boos and ironic cheers. Missing two chances – albeit neither of them sitters – had failed to endear him to the Upton Park faithful, who have yet to embrace him in the way Fulham fans did at his previous club.
During his six and a half years at Craven Cottage, Boa Morte, now 30, thrilled the home fans with his mixture of speed, skill and spite. The latter quality has always been a distinguishing feature of his game, leading to a relationship with referees which once prompted former Fulham manager Chris Coleman to joke that his side would never have a chance of qualifying for Europe through the fair play trophy while Boa Morte was in the side.
Balancing the indiscretions, however, was a sequence of performances which yielded a regular if modest contribution of goals but always a major contribution in terms of influence and dynamism. Boa Morte has the power to transform football matches.
It was a power which Arsène Wenger appreciated very early on, as, in one of his first signings upon joining Arsenal, he paid Sporting Lisbon £1.75m for their hugely promising 20-year-old winger in 1997.
In the two years Boa Morte spent at Highbury he picked up Premiership and FA Cup winners' medals as part of the 1997-98 Double squad, although he missed out on the FA Cup final itself. Let go by Arsenal after he failed to earn a regular first-team place, he was signed for Southampton by Dave Jones in August 1999, but by January of the following year Jones had been replaced by Hoddle. And Hoddle, as Boa Morte recalls with a wry smile, was not a fan of his style of football.
"I only played three times for him, and at the end of the season he told me I wasn't part of his plans and I could go," says Boa Morte, who is in the squad for today's away match against his old side, Fulham, and eager to return to action after missing two games with minor calf problems. "But it was the end of July and I had difficulty getting another club. Even Huddersfield said no, they had a full squad, they didn't need anyone. I was struggling to get a club and I got a bit lost. I thought to myself, 'What am I going to do?' And then it came to my mind to phone Mr Wenger to ask for his help.
"He was always very clear with me when I was at Arsenal. He was very good."
Wenger contacted his fellow Frenchman Jean Tigana, then in charge of Fulham, and arranged a trial, after which Boa Morte joined on a year's loan. That move became permanent after a season in which Fulham won the First Division with a record number of 101 points, with Boa Morte contributing 18 goals in 39 appearances.
Thus was launched a Fulham career which ended only when Boa Morte moved across London to Upton Park in last year's January transfer window for a fee believed to be around £5m. He was plunged straight into a relegation battle, but played a key part in West Ham's unlikely recovery as they remained unbeaten in their last nine games, scoring a crucial first goal in a 3-0 win at fellow strugglers Wigan Athletic which seemed to convince players and fans alike that Premier League status might yet be retained.
This season, however, Boa Morte's form has been undermined by niggling injuries and he has started only 14 of West Ham's 31 matches, coming on as a substitute in seven others, and – most painfully as far as he is concerned – failing so far to contribute any goals.
"It's been one of my most difficult periods in football since I came to West Ham," he says. "But I'm always able and ready and up for the fight, you know, I'm not going to turn my back away.
"We are in a better position as a club this season, so of course I feel better. Personally I just need to score one or two goals to get the thing going because I have been putting in the hard work to get back from my hamstring injury but it is just the scoring bit that hasn't come along. It's been my fault because I have had a few chances, so I'll keep working hard."
Reflecting upon his misses against Liverpool, he adds: "The first one probably was the easiest one to hit the target, but my body was in the wrong position. The second one – I didn't really expect the ball to come to me.
"But I will take the blame. That's a side of football that exists, and we are here to take that. My back is big enough to take the boos for missing chances. But it is not big enough to take the boos for not working hard. That I won't take from the West Ham supporters or any other person. If someone says that, I won' t turn my face away."
As he speaks, his expression hardens, and you begin to see how this slight, amiable character becomes someone else on the pitch. He is unapologetic about the aggressive side of his game, which he believes stems from the attitude he established as the second youngest of 10 boys being raised by his mother in the Lisbon suburb of Quintela.
"Whatever people think of me, my way to be on the pitch is my way and I'm not going to change. My way to be in football is working hard and fighting, because whatever I have got in life in these days, it's because I did work hard and fight for it.
"My dad wasn't at home all the time, so my mum looked after us. I used to lie to my mum about how I'd done in my exams and when I was going to school. She couldn't keep up because she was so busy working. She would get up at 6.30am in the morning and be back home at 7.45pm to cook for all the kids and get things ready for the next day.
"I gave up school when I was 15. It's something I don't want my kids to do. I would like them to have a good time at school and then good careers and university. I did some naughty stuff as a kid. I told my mother recently what we used to do. She almost had a heart attack!'
But the naughty boy had a big talent – he was signed up by Sporting at the age of 11 and was soon playing in one of their junior teams. He also had the determination, or pig-headedness, not to let his opportunity go to waste. "One thing that was hard in my life was to leave school and start working. I worked in a supermarket, then I worked repairing engines on fridge-freezers. Then I was working as an electrician. So one thing that really hurt me was to get up at 5.30 in the morning and catch the bus at quarter past six. That was hard because by the end of the day, when I'd finished work, and when I'd finished training, I would get home about 10pm and I'd sit and try to watch TV and I would just go to sleep.
"My mum said to me 'It's hard, isn't it? Go back to school...' But because I took the option to start working I was not going to give up. I never give up. I always try to get a better job, better conditions. So that was the same thing in football.
"To move to Arsenal was a big surprise, a big gamble for me. I never had any regrets about going to Highbury because it was a big help to my career to play with people like Marc Overmars and Dennis Bergkamp.
"Then I move to Southampton, it was smaller than Arsenal. Then things didn't end up well at Southampton and I ended up going lower to Fulham because they were in the Championship. But then from Fulham I start building up again, because we fought and we did all we could and we got promoted. Then we were fighting for our lives in the Premiership every single season, apart from when we had a great season and finished ninth.
"That's the way that things go. You find sometimes you have downs in life, but you can never give up. You keep fighting to get back to the top. And because I have achieved, I am not going to give up now. I'm expecting to play until I am 35, 36 so I have to keep going."
And now Boa Morte, glancing at his watch, has to get going – back home to Romford, where his wife, Sarah, who is expecting a second child this month, is looking after their lively 19-month-old daughter Rafaela. With an eight-year-old son in Lisbon, Luigi Jnr, this most committed of midfielders has plenty of motivation to maintain his career. He could do with a goal. Perhaps an appearance against his old club today would help do the trick.
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