A-League reject living the dream in Uruguay

After years of battling bad luck and adversity, Blake Ricciuto was overcome with emotion when finally given a chance to shine by Uruguay side, Penarol.

“The feeling was indescribable the day I officially became a Peñarol player, it brought me to tears,” the former Sydney-sider said.

“It was tears of joy, not only because I was a supporter of the club, but also all the heartache I went through before getting to that stage.”

Like many Aussies hoping to break through Ricciuto, 21, was forced to go overseas after he was overlooked by the A-League.

After playing his youth football with Sydney Olympic and Apia Leichardt, he moved to fellow NPL NSW side St George FC. 

Under the tutelage of former NSL journeyman Nick Orlic, he made his first grade debut at just 16.

Ricciuto spent the next two years with Australian football legend Johnny Warren’s former side and things looked like they were going to plan when he was asked to trial with Sydney FC’s youth train on squad.

The Sky Blues decided against snapping up the 18-year-old, however, and Ricciuto - whose father was born in Uruguay - decided to head abroad to try his luck in one of the world’s toughest football cultures, South America.

When he first arrived in Uruguay, the defensive midfielder spent three months trialling with Montevideo-based side Danubio FC.

He was close to signing with the club when a feud between Danubio FC  board members and his go-between at the club scuppered the deal.

Despite the setback, Ricciuto persevered and soon won a trial with Penarol, the Montevideo side he had supported all his life.

After a few months trialling, the reserves coach of Manyas Aurinegros - former Penarol and Juventus star Paulo Montero - persuaded the club to sign Ricciuto on a professional contract.

The deal was done in February, a moment that unleashed a torrent of emotion in the ambitious youngster.

“It was a relief and a privilege to say I was a Penarol player,” Ricciuto said

“I said a few words in front of the coaching staff and the players to let them know I appreciated their help and the part they played in officially becoming part of the group.”

Penarol has a deep history associated with Italian migrants. Ricciuto’s father’s family emigrated from Italy to Uruguay and his remaining relatives provide a crucial support network for the Australian.

“The fact that I have family here helps a whole lot,” he said.

“I live with my uncles and I have a lot of cousins and family that are always there to give me a helping hand and to have a laugh.

 “To drink mate (a typical Uruguayan tea) and to have an Asado (South American BBQ) with them, that does play a big part.”

Even though Ricciuto has Uruguayan background it still took time to acclimatise to his new club and his Aussie accent amused his teammates.

“It´s not easy,” he admitted.

“The first day-week is always the hardest as you get to know the players, coaches and surroundings.

“It didn’t take me long to fit in though, the players were very kind and accepting, they made me feel as if I was at home. I made some good friends here in Penarol.

“They do give me a bit of a hard time with my accent as I might speak a little different to them but it’s all in good nature.”

Football is embedded in Uruguayan culture – not just the passion of fans but also the commitment needed as a young player to succeed in South America.

“I love it,” Ricciuto said.

“Every day I wake up wanting to go to training, always giving 100%.

“It´s tough playing in such a big well-known club but I’m always up for a challenge.

“At the age of 14 they are training everyday with their club, whereas in Australia we don’t find that.

“I’ve had the privilege of sharing change rooms with ex-national players and current Uruguayan Under-20 players, and the quality is very high, but I don’t feel as if Australia is too far behind.

“It’s hard to comprehend how there are only three million Uruguayans yet they are able to produce such a high number of professional and world class players. Uruguay is ranked sixth in the world.”

Ricciuto has had some big moments in his short career with Penarol reserves, including playing in the Eternal Derby with fierce rivals Nacional and scoring against Danubio FC, the club for which he  almost signed.

“My greatest achievements without doubt would be signing with Penarol and scoring the winning goal against Danubio in front of 15,000 fans in the Jardines Stadium with the last kick of the game," he said.

“It was another moment that brought me to tears.

“Also playing the Clasico against Nacional in the Estadio Centenario, it was the game before first grade and in the second half of our game we were playing in front of 50,000 people.

“It was another great moment in my career.”

Some positive feedback by a former Uruguayan national team player has Ricciuto believing that with some hard work a first team start may be close.

“I have trained several times with first grade, and left good impressions,” he said.

“Even Fabian “Lolo” Estoyanoff  (who scored a penalty against Australia in the World Cup Qualifying shootout in 2005) has mentioned that I am doing well and to keep on working hard.”

So far Ricciuto hasn’t had any contact from anyone at Football Federation Australia but the Sydney youngster has had a taste of international football playing against some of Uruguay’s youth sides.

He is eligible to represent Uruguay but being born and bred in Australia, Ricciuto is passionate about representing the Socceroos one day.

He added: “It will be a dream come true to play for the Socceroos. It’s everything I wished for as a kid, and I hope one day I could make it happen.”

PHOTO: Penarol