You can learn a lot from a football player by his goal celebration.
Kylian Mbappé’s understated shoulder fold comes to mind, a shout-out to his brother’s celebration of choice after scoring a goal in FIFA.
A larger-than-life athlete, however, deserves a more glorious trademark – which calls to mind Cristiano Ronaldo and his now iconic (and much replicated) mid-air pirouette, before orchestrating the crowd to a unified ‘si!’
Enter Tanjong Pagar United’s Blake Ricciuto, whose simple celebration belies a complex meaning. One may ask how you can derive a deeper meaning from an index finger pointed to the head, but by the end of this interview article, you will indeed find out exactly that, and much more about what makes his El Loco nickname so apt.
La Celeste vs. The Socceroos
The events that unfolded on 16 November 2005 in Sydney simultaneously shook the footballing world and ignited the passion of a nation that was previously obsessed with other sports played on grass – cricket and rugby. An un-fancied Australia side shocked 2-time World Cup winners Uruguay over two legs, culminating in a penalty shoot-out that erupted the Sydney crowd.
The victory meant that the Socceroos qualified for the 2006 World Cup for the first time in over 30 years – the very tournament that saw them reach the Round of 16, the best result by the nation to this day. The occasion was even given the moniker ‘The Day Australia Became a Football Nation’, after the COPA90 documentary made over the iconic moment.
And you can bet your bottom dollar that a young Blake Ricciuto was celebrating the victory.
Of Uruguayan descent, Blake was born in Sydney, Australia – the very place that spawned a new generation of Australian football fanatics. It was no wonder that he first took to supporting the boys in green and yellow.
“At that point, I’ve never been to Uruguay – there was nothing much except for the fact that my father was Uruguayan, so I was cheering them on to qualify for the World Cup” he remembers. Having been raised in Australia watching his older brother play in local clubs, the football fan quickly turned into a prized prospect as he shined against his peers at St George FC, clinching the Player Of The Year award and reaching the finals in 2010.
Blake recounted the time as one where he really felt like he was finding his footing as a player – “I was 16 when I made my debut at St George, and I was there until I was 18. It was good as a young boy playing against grown men. I thought I was doing very well… (and) it was the first time I felt ‘I could do this for a living’, and I really wanted to do it for a living.”
That was, until the very nation that gave birth to the footballing dream crushed his own.
“I wasn’t having any luck of even getting into a youth side in the A-League, in their youth leagues or their youth systems” the midfielder recounted, but he would not let the setback stop him, which would become a recurring theme in his career.
“I decided to pack my bags to go to Uruguay to try something new. I didn’t speak the language, and I didn’t know anyone there really, besides some family members. Nothing was set, and my dad was just like ‘look, we’ll find someone that knows someone and see if that can get you a trial somewhere’, so it was really about me taking my chances. (*)
It was apt that his journey so far consisted of the very two sides of the coin that fought it out in 2005, and was also decided essentially on this flip of a coin. Some might consider dropping everything as a teenager to enter a country where you don’t speak the language a crazy proposition, but not El Loco.
“It was (really) to follow my dream of playing professional football.”
Libertad o Muerte
And play professional football he did. But it didn’t come easy – Uruguay only has about 3.5 million people, but unlike Australia, it is a nation that lives and breathes football.
“The first thing I noticed was the passion and hunger. They live (football) every minute, and you see (players like) Suarez and Forlan celebrating when they score a goal and you know how much it means to them – but nearly every single Uruguayan player had that in them. Young kids were playing football everyday with whatever they could find – I saw them play with rolled-up socks, and that really is the biggest difference (between Australia and Uruguay).”
This was also a turning point in the midfielder’s life, who found the passion contagious and a boon to his game. He found himself trying to win every single ball, having the hunger to score and wanting to win every game, and armed with this newly found freedom, an unleashed Blake Ricciuto impressed at trials. However, in a refrain to his time in Australia, his good performances were again left unrewarded.
An impressive showing at Danubio FC led to a contract offer, but that got pulled due to disputes between the agent and the club’s Head of Football (*). What followed was a 3 month trial at Club Atlético Peñarol (one of two clubs never to be relegated from the Uruguayan top division) which led to him being signed, but even after scoring a game-winner with the reserves and regularly training with the first team, he was frustratingly left out of the first team sheet. (*)
Any sane person would consider giving up at any point, perhaps citing a certain injustice, but as is befitting of the article’s theme, El Loco persevered.
A loan to Canadian Soccer Club finally sparked the taste of professional football Blake sought, as he became a key part of their iconic 2014/15 season – one where they finished 5th place, and narrowly missed out on a place in the Uruguayan first division by losing in the semi-finals to current first division side Boston River.
Not so crazy after all, it seems.
And The Winner Is…
A return to Australia saw the midfield maestro play for Rockdale City FC, and as expected, he shined again, earning both Player Of The Year and Team Of The Year accolades twice, a fitting hint of what’s to come. Not one to rest on his laurels though, he wanted to find another challenge.
“We were training 4-5 times a week, but the league that we were playing in was considered semi-professional. (After 3 years) I just wanted to make that step into full-time football again and really live and breathe it, just like how I did in Uruguay. (*)”
That search led to a trial with Brunei DPMM, playing in the Singapore Premier League (SPL) at the time. For once, though, there would be no bad news – Blake was picked as one of the 3 coveted foreign player slots as the team looked to mount a strong 2019 campaign, after coming in a disappointing 3rd place the previous year.
23 Games and 9 Goals later, he found himself having put in one of his craziest seasons yet, scooping up both the Player of the Month and Goal of the Month awards, and earning a spot in the vaunted SPL 2019 Team Of The Year. Speaking on his efforts, he said, ‘My accolades were all based on a team effort, I wouldn’t have been able to do all that without the team.’
“Your life is crazy mate.“
Even in a pre-Covid world, that statement seemed apt to describe Blake’s globe-trotting life, as he found himself travelling multiple continents to fulfil his footballing dreams, landing now in Singapore as he plays with Tanjong Pagar United. That statement also holds the key to understanding his aforementioned goal celebration.
Recounting the incident that brought him to the United States for a trial in Tampa, Blake quipped “I went from Brunei, stopped in Australia for one day and went straight to the USA for a trial. (To this) a friend of mine said ‘your life is crazy, one day you’re in Australia, one day you’re in the United States!’ I was thinking of a celebration at the time, so I decided to just do this [points finger to head].” (*) El Loco was official.
The midfielder loves his new life in sunny Singapore, and though his new team has not gone off to a great start, he is confident that it will turn around. “It’s not easy just coming into the second year of the club… but the actual process and everything, I think is going in the right direction.” He now spends his days living and breathing football as he desired, and possibly sneaking in some Chicken Rice on the side. He also now supports La Celeste on a regular basis, following his heritage and cheering on the nation that gave back his footballing dream.
Though our interview happened in the midst of the coronavirus restrictions, I think that you will agree – the story of Blake Ricciuto is filled with perseverance, which is something we all desperately need in the pandemic where nothing is for certain. Listening to his story had taught me that I should live life with a driven mindset and an optimistic outlook.
And perhaps, just a little bit of craziness.
All photos provided by Blake Ricciuto, Credit to Tanjong Pagar United, Brunei DPMM, Singapore Premier League, Rockdale Ilinden FC and COPA90.
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