By Graham Hunter
It was back on 7 November, in a uefa.com interview, that Benni McCarthy first revealed his belief that FC Porto could win the UEFA Champions League this season.
"If a club like Porto gets to the quarter-finals of the Champions League then you never know how far we could go," was his choice of phrase when he explained that qualifying from a group containing Real Madrid CF and subsequent UEFA Cup finalists Olympique de Marseille was not the limit of their ambition.
His own personal progress has capped a tremendous time for South Africa, as against RC Deportivo La Coruña the striker became the first man from the newly-announced 2010 FIFA World Cup host nation to play in a Champions League semi-final.
So even if Porto coach José Mourinho opts on Wednesday to pair Derlei with Carlos Alberto rather than McCarthy, the 26-year-old from Cape Town, who joined the club permanently in the summer after an unhappy spell at RC Celta de Vigo, has already entered his country's history books twice - having already scored their first World Cup finals goal in 1998. He admits it has been a long road from the township of Hannover Park where he and Manchester United FC's Quinton Fortune were raised.
There was no expectation for a young boy other than to become some kind of gangster," McCarthy recalled. "Our formative years were nothing but stories of gangs and one of my best friends was killed, by accident, in a drive-by shooting.
"I remember playing against Quinton, when we were only eleven or 12, and there were gangsters on the touchline threatening to kill him if he played well against my team. Football took you away from that life."
Fortune's moves to RCD Mallorca and Club Atlético de Madrid inspired McCarthy, who joined AFC Ajax in 1997. "All of the subsequent South African footballers who have made it in Europe owe a big debt to Quinton," he admitted. "He carved out a path and I remember thinking 'If he can do it then I'm just going to have to try harder and make it too!'"
Apart from his agent of more than ten years, Rob Moore, the key influence on McCarthy's career is Mourinho. The striker credits his Portuguese coach in every interview - even though they have fallen out twice this season over disciplinary matters - and was present when Mourinho gave his first Porto team-talk just under two-and-a-half years ago.
"Looking back to that moment, when I was only on loan at the club, it is easy to trace the route from mid-table in Portugal to the Champions League final," he said. "I remember clearly that he drew everyone around him and told them 'We are going to have to fight like dogs to even get into the UEFA Cup next season but we will get there if you do what I ask'."
'You trust Mourinho'
He added: "By the end of that season, we missed qualifying for the Champions League on the last day of the season and it became a disappointment only to be in the UEFA Cup! He sat us all down again and promised, that if everyone did as he asked again, Porto would win the championship and the UEFA Cup - and they did.
None of us are surprised to be where we are now - we have learned that if you trust José Mourinho and do what he asks then what he promises comes true."
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