FEATURE | The Zeal of Fortune: From Cape Town to the Calderón

“Polako! Polako!” cries the 43-year-old South African in Serbian at his group of fledgling superstars on the leafy suburbs of Manchester.

This exchange may seem a touch unrealistic, yet it simply highlights the nomadic journey Quinton Fortune has taken thus far in his football career.

Polako, the Serbian expression for relax, was picked up whilst playing for Atlético Madrid, then managed by legendary coach Radomir Antić.

The Serb unfortunately passed away earlier this year, but his illustrious career saw him manage Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Atletico Madrid.

Antić gave Fortune his professional debut in April 1997, coming on against Barcelona at the Vicente Calderón.

It was a true baptism of fire for the South African, enhanced by the fact he was sent on to mark Ronaldo (Nazário). Fortune was in awe of the Brazilian, who had already scored a quick-fire hat-trick in the game.

Fortune enjoyed his formative years in Madrid, having spent his youth career at Tottenham Hotspur under the tutelage of Terry Venables.

Antić saw great potential in the sinistral South African despite some early setbacks in their communication.

He revealed in a lockdown interview with Semra Hunter of LaLiga TV that his Atlético teammates gave him some misguided tips on Spanish greetings.

Each morning at the start of his Madrid career he would great Antić with an enthusiastic hijo de p**a, much to the amusement of his teammates.

Despite this particular faux pas, Fortune now considers himself a true polyglot. His French girlfriend speaks the language to their kids, adding to his own English, Spanish, and native Afrikaans.

Fortune’s upbringing in Cape Town was far from straightforward with his parents encouraging him and his four brothers to play as much sport as possible in order to avoid gang culture.

His mother worked two jobs to feed the family of seven. He jokes that his father allowed him to leave for Spurs initially because it would mean there was more food in the house for him.

Such was the work ethic handed down to him by his parents that they never saw him play an official match until his home debut for Manchester United vs Bradford City on Boxing day 1999. Fortune scored the opener, which set up a routine 4-0 victory for United.

Having been born on the day Manchester United won the FA Cup Final vs Liverpool in 1977, his debut was the realisation of a life’s dream for Fortune.

For his parents, it also represented the first time they had seen their son play alongside white players, having watched him grow up in the age of Apartheid in Cape Town.

In fact, Quinton only played on one team with both black and white players before he travelled to Europe. It was with this provincial team, Western Province, that he was scouted by Spurs and subsequently made his way to England.

During his youth career in North London, Fortune spent four years with a host family and was educated at Forest School in the London borough of Waltham Forest.

As part of his arrangement with the college, he would appear for their school team, and played his first match against Eton College.

After four years, Fortune was released by Spurs and briefly returned to South Africa. However, he was soon picked up by Atlético.

While his time in Madrid was generally happy and prosperous, he did spend a forgettable year on loan at Mallorca.

In July 2020, he told Sky Sports about this time being “the lowest point” of his life.

My own teammate racially abused me in training. I didn’t know what to do. I was 17 or 18, I didn’t know who to turn to.

Having recently moved on as assistant manager of the Manchester United U-23 side to join Reading as a first-team coach, Fortune is eager to promote a competitive but fair working environment for coaches and players alike.

While he is encouraged by the Rooney Rule, which gives BAME coaches the opportunity to interview for head coaching positions, he is alarmed by the lack of representation in the different tiers of English football.

Around 34% of players in the Premier League are black, but when we look at coaches around the Premier League and the EFL, only 6% are black coaches.”

Fortune has spoken of his eagerness to coach in Spain but his dream job remains the Old Trafford hot seat.

This position might be some way off his radar for now, even if his former teammate’s side are currently struggling, but the Cape Town native has pulled off bigger surprises in the past.

Ciáran Brennan

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