It is late March 2002 in Athens. Not far from the centre of town, at the Apostolos Nikolaidis Stadium, a Champions League second group phase match is unfolding between Panathinaikos and Real Madrid. With both sides already assured of qualification for the quarter-finals, the match is effectively meaningless, however with 10 minutes left, the Greeks are on course for a famous 2-1 victory.
That is until the 81st minute, when a quick free-kick is taken in the middle of the pitch by Real, caught in the high period of their Galáctico era. The recipient opens his body with his first touch and nudges the ball forward before unleashing a 35-yard shot that beats Antonios Nikopolidis. The scorer is not a big star, but rather a 19-year-old making his first-team debut. His name is Javier Portillo.
Born in 1982 in Aranjuez, a small city some 40km south of Madrid, Portillo joined Real at the age of 11. To call him prolific during his time progressing through the ranks would be an understatement. Portillo was frequently compared to club legend Raúl, whose own youth record he surpassed by supposedly netting up to 700 times across his eight-year development in La Fábrica. A clinical finisher who came alive in the six-yard box, Portillo was justifiably seen as the shining hope of Real’s academy, and therefore under immense pressure to succeed.
Not that he showed it, scoring a remarkable 29 goals in 18 games for the C team in 2000/01 prior to being promoted to the B side. Fourteen in 11 appeared to reiterate Portillo’s quality. His goals were then crucial as Castilla ended 11 points clear at the top of the Segunda B Grupo III in 2001/02. Such form and a suspension for Pedro Munitis prompted Vicente del Bosque to name Portillo on the bench for the aforementioned Panathinaikos game, and although it remained his sole senior appearance that season, he was awarded a winners medal after the triumph in Glasgow.
The summer of 2002 brought a first professional contract for Portillo, who signed a five-year deal with a €35m release clause. Most media attention that summer was focused on another forward signing terms. It was none other than Brazil’s World Cup hero Ronaldo, who signed on from Internazionale – but this didn’t prevent Portillo featuring in the upcoming pre-season.
His first two appearances that campaign were the stuff of dreams, ending with silverware in one and a hat-trick in the other. Portillo came off the bench in the UEFA Super Cup, replacing Guti with 20 minutes to play in a 3-1 win over Feyenoord, and less than a fortnight later, he hit a hat-trick in an 8-1 Copa del Rey thrashing of fourth tier UD Sanse. That season he would record eight strikes to finish as the competition’s top scorer.
With the signing of Ronaldo, the unproven Portillo was always likely to be restricted to opportunities from the bench, but Del Bosque did try and show faith. Unfortunately, the influence and transfer strategy of Florentino Pérez stilted his growth, with Portillo rarely handed a consistent run of starts. Nevertheless, he still appeared in the opening two group games in the Champions League, prior to making his LaLiga debut in October 2002 in a comfortable 4-1 win over Alavés.
It would take until just his third game for Portillo to open his league account for the senior team. Coming on in the dying seconds as a substitute for Raúl, within a minute Portillo had managed to score the final goal in a 4-1 win over Valencia. Much credit went to Zinedine Zidane for his individual skill to create the chance, but take nothing away from Portillo who did what he always had in the all-white of Los Blancos, finishing from close range.
It would take another month for Del Bosque to throw his young charger into the mix again, and once more, Portillo delivered with a goal in a fleeting four-minute appearance against Real Valladolid. Three days later, Portillo latched onto Zidane’s pull back to equalise right at the death in the Champions League second group phase match with Borussia Dortmund, a result that was crucial in sealing Real’s progression to the quarter-finals.
The 21-year-old would appear in four of the next six league fixtures, netting three times to finish the season with 14 goals across 24 games. Working out at a ratio of a goal roughly every hour, it was an extremely encouraging debut campaign from the young striker. Portillo would also collect a league winners medal for his exploits, with Real famously pipping Real Sociedad to the title on the final day.
The form was such that Del Bosque’s replacement, Carlos Queiroz, placed extra faith in Portillo during the following season. A rare homegrown talent amongst the hordes of Galácticos, unfortunately the extra exposure did little to help. In 30 matches across all competitions in 2003/04, he hit a dismal two goals, with one of those again coming at lowly Sanse in the Copa del Rey second round.
Pre-season in 2004/05 saw another managerial change take place, with José Antonio Camacho replacing the sacked Queiroz. The new manager was less than impressed with Portillo, sending the 22-year-old on loan to Fiorentina in July. His time in Florence was to be unhappy, however, as he struggled to adapt to the defensive nature of the Italian game, with just four starting appearances and one goal in the league.
Following a narrow 3-2 loss to Lazio in January, Portillo was on his way back to Spain, recalled owing to a lack of playing time. By now, Vanderlei Luxemburgo was in charge, but it did little to aid Portillo, who would go on to play just 134 minutes back at the Bernabéu that season.
In the summer of 2005 he was loaned out again, this time to Belgian champions Club Brugge. This year restored Portillo’s confidence somewhat, as he recorded a respectable return of 11 goals in 32 games and was named the league’s best foreign player. Highlights were both goals to see off Gent in a 2-1 victory, alongside a fine curling strike that secured a 1-1 draw with Bayern Munich in the Champions League. Unfortunately, Brugge were unable to defend their title, ending up in third place as Portillo opted against extending his stay.
Upon returning to Real Madrid, his time was up. Portillo found himself in the unenviable position of eighth-choice forward behind Antonio Cassano, Gonzalo Higuaín, José Antonio Reyes, Raúl, Robinho, Ronaldo and Ruud van Nistelrooy. The boy who once held a €35 million release clause was now free to move on.
Portillo decided to remain in LaLiga and sign on at newly promoted Gimnàstic. Scoring in only his second match against Celta, there would only be one in the next 15 league games as the Tarragona outfit fought a losing battle with relegation. A change in both Gimnàstic and Portillo’s fortunes came in early December with the sacking of Luis César Sampedro.
His replacement, Paco Flores, had a system that took a bit of getting used to but from late January, there was no looking back for Portillo. He opened the scoring after just eight minutes against Espanyol, powering home a header from Juan Díaz’s cross prior to winning a penalty that was duly converted by Alejandro Campano. Gimnàstic went on to win 4-0, with Portillo scoring in his next two games, an away draw with Celta and narrow 3-2 loss to Osasuna.
It was in early March that Portillo’s quality really shone through as he gave Gimnàstic brief hope of an unlikely survival. Key to this was the opener in a 2-0 win at Athletic Club, which he followed up with the only goal of a shock 1-0 win over league-leading Sevilla. He missed a return to the Bernabéu owing to an unusual clause in his contract that stated he was unable to play against Real, but was back amongst the goals in the following match as the 10 men of Gimnàstic hung on for a point against Recreativo.
Further goals sealed little more than consolation results for the now relegated Tarragona side. This late flurry and Gimnàstic’s relegation did, however, put Portillo on the wish lists of several top-flight sides, and he settled on Osasuna.
Tasked with replacing Roberto Soldado, who returned to Real after a successful loan spell, it was to be another false dawn. Failing to score in his opening nine matches, from that moment on he never really played his way back into the side. His second season for Osasuna was even worse, with a solitary goal in 22 games. After playing just 38 minutes in the opening half of 2009/10, Portillo opted to move on in January to second-tier Hércules.
Even the lower level of quality failed to help Portillo’s goal drought, with his first goal for Hércules coming in May 2010 against Albacete. What was of significance, however, was whereas he had to wait 623 days for that goal, the next one came within 15 minutes. A 5-1 win was followed up by a 0-0 draw at Cartagena that set up a nervy two final games.
The first one with Rayo Vallecano looked bleak at half-time, with right-back Coke having put the visitors 1-0 up at break. Just three minutes after the restart, though, Portillo equalised – but Hércules needed more. Going for promotion back to the top flight, which they last graced in 1997, the clock ticked ominously on towards 90 minutes, upon which the blowing of Alejandro Hernández’s whistle would put Hércules’ fate out of their hands on the final day.
Then, in the 88th minute, it happened. A wayward cross from the right ended up on the edge of the box. It was met by a Hércules head, and fell in the six-yard box. There to instinctively rifle home, just as he was eight years previously to finish Zidane’s pass against Valencia, was Portillo. With Betis drawing at Salamanca, the Estadio José Rico Pérez was sent into delirium. The result meant all Hércules needed to do was win at already relegated Real Unión on the final day, and their 13-year top-flight exile would be over.
A 2-0 victory was duly secured, with Portillo grabbing the first after 17 minutes to help dispel any nerves. Despite only scoring five goals in 16, Portillo became an instant hero. Sadly, the story of his career would be played out as a mere footnote in Hércules’ solitary season back, with summer signings David Trezeguet and Nelson Valdez preferred and Portillo consigned back to his familiar role on the bench.
Upon relegation, Portillo decided to switch to fellow Segunda outfit Las Palmas, again coming good at the end of the season with four goals in eight games. That summer the club agreed to terminate the remaining two years on his contract to allow Portillo to return to Hércules.
It is claimed the sole motivation for this was his connection to majority shareholder Enrique Ortiz, the father of Portillo’s girlfriend, Laura. The refusal of sporting director Sergio Fernández to sign Portillo led to his dismissal from the club, whilst key striker Urko Vera had his contract rescinded to fund the deal. The majority of the club’s fans were incensed at such a decision, and as the club spiralled downwards under increasing debts, his presence was viewed with disdain.
Handed the captain’s armband on several occasions, Portillo’s 17 goals were vital in helping the Alicante side avoid another relegation in 2012/13. Unfortunately, such a fate befell Hércules the following season, although Portillo remained and dropped down to Segunda B for 18 months. In the third tier he failed to make a telling contribution, finally announcing his retirement in December 2015, a decision he described as “a bitter farewell” owing to continued abuse.
One could perhaps view it as a fitting end to the fable of Javier Portillo, now filed away under the all too familiar category of ‘what might have been’. While he never came close to matching the expectations placed upon his young shoulders, to call his career a failure would be unfair. He found love and respect through the sport, and he can always look back on moments the vast majority of us will never live – even if it remains a shame that things didn’t work out at Real Madrid.
By James Kelly @jkell403