The verbs ‘fight’ and ‘dream’ pop up repeatedly in conversation with Nani. Perhaps that is because, at 29, he is currently enjoying one of the finest moments of his career, but has not forgotten the sacrifices he made to get where he is. From an early age the recently-crowned European champion knew that surrendering to the obstacles in life was not an option, and he has been swimming against the tide since the very start. Nani was abandoned by his parents and had a difficult childhood in Amadora, a district in the outskirts of Lisbon where things often turn out badly – as the examples of some of his friends attest to.
Nani went on to fulfil his dream of becoming a professional footballer and, after he was quietly ushered out by Manchester United, the club where he achieved his greatest successes, he bounced back in the best way possible: by winning UEFA EURO 2016 with Portugal and arriving in Spain at Valencia.
Speaking with the same directness that characterises his playing style in this exclusive interview with FIFA.com, the Portuguese winger talks about a variety of topics, including how his personal journey has shaped who he is today; his forced captaincy in the EURO final after Cristiano Ronaldo sustained an injury; and the new chapter Portugal are embarking on in 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ qualifying.
FIFA.com: You have won a lot of titles during your career, including the UEFA Champions League and the FIFA Club World Cup with Manchester United, but was winning the European Championship the most important of them all?
Nani: Yes, the European title is the most important one and the one that means the most because it was with the national team. It’s something all us players dreamed about. I’m very proud to be able to represent my country and to have achieved something so important to us. The celebrations were full of joy. The whole country is proud of the team, and we are too because we wanted to give something to the people and we did everything we could to make that happen.
When you win something so important, do you think about the path you took to get there?
I’ve always had to fight a lot. I’ve been through so much since I was a child and I keep fighting for everything I want to keep in my life. I’ve also had an intense fight in football in order to achieve the aims I’ve set myself. I’ve always thought it was possible. Today I’m very satisfied with everything I’ve achieved because I’m the only one who knows what I went through and how hard I had to fight to get here. With my son, for example, I want to show him where I was, where I started, where I played. I want him to know that not everything in life is as easy as it may appear to be now. I’m trying to make him a good person who can reach his own objectives in the future.
Do you think your life can serve as an example to children going through situations similar to those you experienced in your childhood?
Yes, I think my past can teach them a lot. It can show them that they could be like me one day, because even though we go through very tough times in life we have to fight and search for happiness. We shouldn’t let go of our dreams. If we fight, good things happen in the end. There’s no doubt that football saved me from getting into trouble when I was small. I’m not going to say I’ve never done anything wrong. That was normal where I used to live. I got up to some mischief with my friends, childish things, but they led me astray from the right path. But when the time came to play football I dropped everything for it. It kept me entertained and everything revolved around the game for me. That’s how I stayed clear of bad things.
In the EURO final Portugal managed to overcome the loss of Cristiano Ronaldo to injury, and you took over as captain and leader. What went through your mind when he handed you the armband?
I remember it being a very sad moment. He’s our captain, a person we respect a great deal and someone who’s fought so much for us. So at that moment, when we saw that he was injured, I felt sad when he told me he couldn’t continue. Playing in that final was a special moment for everyone, especially for him, so it was extremely saddening. I told him I wouldn’t let him down, that I would give everything and that we would try to win the match because we deserved it. It was a key moment. Our mentality changed and we played the football we had inside us. We fought and in the end the team that suffered most ended up winning.
And Ronaldo gave you the Silver Boot award he won…
We scored the same amount of goals at the tournament and I really appreciated that gift. It was a very kind gesture and I was very touched. He said: ‘I’m giving you this for your attitude, for all your effort and for everything you’ve done for this team because you helped a lot.’
This season you will meet in La Liga on opposing teams…
I’ve already checked when we’re playing and it’s soon (laughs). I haven’t actually spoken to Cristiano about it yet. It’s going to be difficult for us because Real Madrid are a very strong team with the best players in the world. But it’s a game you know the whole world is going to be watching and we want to win it.
You have just arrived at Valencia, a team steeped in tradition in Spanish football. What do you think you can contribute?
I really wanted to play in Spain and this opportunity arrived at the best time of my life. I think I can contribute hard work and a strong mentality that isn’t easily shaken. I want to help Valencia a lot and give my all. We kicked off the league season with two defeats and that’s not how you should start. We need to improve a few things but we’ve got the ability to play well and win.
Let us return to the national team again. You just won the continental title and now have a new challenge on the horizon: qualifying for Russia 2018. Do you think other teams will look at Portugal with greater respect now?
It would make sense if they did, wouldn’t it (laughs)? But it doesn’t matter if they don’t. The most important thing is what we do ourselves. We’re going to keep going with the same ambition and we’re going to enjoy our football, like always. After winning the EURO we’re very strong and full of confidence.
Your first game is in Switzerland and Ronaldo will be absent again. Portugal have already shown they can succeed without him, but how will you approach the qualifying campaign?
We have to get off to a good start and try to impose our qualities from the outset so that we don’t have to worry at the end. We know Switzerland are a very strong team and they’re playing at home so it won’t be easy. On top of that, now that we’re European champions, other teams are going to be even more determined to beat us. But our objective is to try to win every game we play.
It used to be said of Portugal that they always fell at the final hurdle when it came to winning major trophies. However, after conquering Europe, do you think the time has arrived for the team to dream big – like winning the World Cup?
Of course. Winning this World Cup is one of our objectives. When you start winning you can’t change your attitude. Obviously there’s no guarantee you’re always going to win, but the ambition and attitude always have to be there. Football is a game of dreams and we have to keep dreaming in order to achieve great things like the European title. We’ll have to see what happens in World Cup qualifying but we’re going to try to take Portugal as high as we can in the football world.