This whole story started because we were starving.
One day when I was very young, I became convinced that God had chosen me to become a footballer. I was living with my mother and eight of my siblings in a one-bedroom house, which had a floor full of holes crawling with rats and lizards.
We had nothing to eat.
We were fighting for our lives.
But then one of my older brothers had an idea about how we could eat for free.
Before I tell you what happened, I guess I should explain how we ended up living like this. A few years earlier, when I was seven, we were living in a wooden house that my dad had built. The roof leaked, but we just covered it with plastic whenever it rained. One day my dad had saved enough money to build a bigger house with proper material.
But before he could finish it, he made a trip to Cape Verde, where my parents are from.
I thought he was supposed to be gone for a few weeks, but then months passed. He didn’t come back.
I didn’t know what had happened. He had several sons there, so maybe he was visiting them? All I knew was that I loved him too much to be angry with him.
But his absence made life very difficult for my mother.
She had four daughters and five sons, of whom I was the youngest, so she had a lot of kids to care for. We were living in a quiet neighbourhood in Amadora, just outside of Lisbon. But five minutes away from us there was a government housing project, Santa Filomena, where a lot of bad stuff happened. We had a lot of cultures in the area — Cape Verdeans, Angolans, Gypsies — and they would often clash. I would see a lot of police cars and ambulances. I would hear rumours that people had been shot. But my mother was never scared of any of that. If anyone dared to even touch me, she would come after them. We would call her mãe galinha, “mother chicken,” because of how protective she was.
Courtesy of NaniShe did anything to feed us. She was a singer. She worked in a restaurant and in the fire department. But the strain was too much for her, and after a few years she found another man. We were still living in the big house that my dad had started building, but her new man didn’t want to live there. He wanted to stay in his house — which was way worse! And since we wanted to stay together, we moved in. We were 10 people sharing one bedroom, one living room, one kitchen and one toilet. I had to sleep on the couch.
Eventually the rats and the lizards became something normal for us. When you are a kid, it’s amazing what you can adapt to.
But the one thing you can never get used to is being hungry.
Hunger is difficult to explain. Some people say, “Oh, look at those poor kids in Africa.” Yeah, you might see them starving. But try to experience it. Try to feel it when your mouth is dry, when your stomach is screaming, when the pain in your body is so great that you wonder whether something is cutting into your skin, or whether this is just a condition that you have to get used to.
I had that feeling a lot.
I guess the only good thing about hunger is that it forces you to find solutions.
One day one of my brothers, Paulo Roberto, had an idea. I think I was about 10 years old. My brother was five years older than me, and he had basically taken the place of my father. He was teaching me everything. Now he said, “Why don’t we go to the rich part of Lisbon and ask for food?”
I wasn’t really sure about it. Could it be that simple? But Paulo knew that these people would have food to spare, and he was right. I was amazed. They gave us bread and soup and biscuits. Some invited us inside. Some gave us money to buy our own food. We even made some new friends.
I think they liked us because we chose not to steal. We asked. We were honest.
One day Paulo and I had been playing football when we spotted a Pizza Hut. When we asked for food, they said they had nothing. But as we were leaving, a woman came after us. “Hey! Whoo, whoo, whoo! Wait a sec, wait a sec!”
Two minutes later, she came out with a pizza that was almost completely fresh.
Ohhh, man, that pizza … it was so insanely good!
If you’ve never known true hunger, then you might think I am exaggerating. But if you have lived it, you know I am telling you the truth when I say that I can still taste that pizza.
The woman then asked us what we were doing. My brother said we were playing football. And then, for whatever reason, she asked us to come back the next day. She wanted to see us play.
So we did. Once she saw my brother play, she said, “Whoa, you are very good!”
She said, “Listen. I have a friend who is a professional player. Maybe he can help you.”
Her friend was Marco Aurélio. Soon he arranged for Paulo to train with Sporting Lisbon. So my brother had asked for a pizza, and he had ended up getting a trial at one of the best clubs in Portugal! Not bad!!
This was the chance of a lifetime. But by the time Paulo turned up to training, he was late … by a month!
Not an hour.
Not 20 minutes.
And that was the thing: Paulo was different from me. He was a better player, no doubt, but his head was in the wrong place. He had already made some bad friends. He had started to smoke, too. After he failed to turn up on time, he went to train with Sparta Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, but he never had the dedication to become a professional.
When I found out that he had messed up his chance to sign for Sporting, I realised that God had chosen me to support the family — by becoming a footballer.
All my brothers lacked something inside that would have kept them on the right path. Discipline, dedication, positivity.
But for some reason, I had all of this.
Andrew Yates/AFP via Getty Images
I am also convinced that God put the right people in my path. The first was Sabino, my best friend, who invited me to my first-ever training session, when I was seven. I remember, I went home to find some training gear. I put on a pair of old running shorts, a pair of jeans, a button-down shirt, and then I picked up a pair of leather shoes, the kind you might wear to a party. I stepped outside in the pouring rain. Sabino had told me to take the train, but I couldn’t afford a ticket, so I ran all the way there.
When I got to the pitch, I stripped to my shorts and ran onto the pitch. The other kids were like, “Haaahahaaa! Look at that! What is this guy wearing?”
But when we began to play — and it wasn’t easy, because the pitch was gravel, and soaking wet — I dribbled my way between the players and the puddles and BOOM! Goal. I tried a shot from long range. BOOM! Another. At some point the coach grabbed my arm.
He said, “Hey, you! Come here. Who are you? How did you even get here?”
I said, “I ran.”
He just shook his head. “Come back tomorrow, kid. We’ll give you some proper kit.”God had chosen me to support the family — by becoming a footballer.
The next person God put on my path was Mustafa. You remember Santa Filomena, the housing project that was five minutes away from my neighbourhood? Well, in the middle of those two areas there was a five-a-side pitch where everyone would play. Mustafa lived at the top of a hill right by the pitch. He was an old man from Africa, and he would always watch us play through his window. Often he would come down and show us how to do things right. He’d be like, “No! You have to pass it like this!”
Most of the kids were like, Oh no, not this guy again. But I wanted to learn from Mustafa. He knew a lot. He never called me Nani, the nickname one of my sisters had given me once because she thought it sounded cute. No. With Mustafa it was always just Luís.
“No, Luís! Use the inside of the foot. The inside!”
Mustafa eventually got a bunch of kids together to form a team, and before long he was organising games between communities in the neighbourhood. We would play against the kids from neighbourhoods like Santa Filomena. I remember they were so tough. Fortunately, Paulo was teaching me how to survive on the streets. He was huuuuge. Seriously, he made people cry. One time this guy tried to intimidate me, so I told Paulo, “You see that guy over there? Yeah, he was the one trying to scare me.”
And then Paulo went straight up to the guy and slapped him in the face!
He was so strict with me, too. If I did something wrong, he’d hit me. I would have been lost without him because he helped me stay away from the bad stuff — the stuff that he himself couldn’t resist. When I was 10, I wasn’t smoking like some of the other kids. I was playing for a team called Real Massamá.
Courtesy of Nani
That team was another blessing. I used to take the train to the training ground without a ticket, because I couldn’t afford one. Whenever the inspectors caught me, they would say, “O.K. kid, don’t do this again.”
I would say, “O.K. no problem.”
And then the next day I would do it again.
But soon the coaches began to give me money for tickets. They also gave me food, because they knew I didn’t eat much at home. Some of my teammates gave me clothes, and would even let me stay at their places for a week at a time.
Thankfully, our family moved out of the house with the rats and the lizards. Although, in truth, I didn’t care that much where I lived. I just wanted to play.
In my head, I was living out on that muddy five-a-side-pitch.
I was obsessed. I’d get up at seven in the morning to do sprints. I’d be out on the pitch alone, in the rain, shooting with my left and my right foot. Mustafa would tell people, “This Luís kid, eh? He doesn’t eat. He doesn’t drink. He’s just out there training. He doesn’t care about anything else.”I’d be out on the pitch alone, in the rain, shooting with my left and my right foot.
Soon I got so good that I was being linked to the big clubs. “Sporting want you! Benfica want you!” Every year they were saying that. But nothing happened. Then in 2003, when I was 16, a friend of mine said, “Nani, you have to change clubs soon. I have never seen Sporting or Benfica sign someone who is 17 years old.”
He was right. But at that time I was in the process of playing a fantastic season for Real Massamá. I scored 22 goals. And before our last game of the season, a coach I knew arranged for me to take part in a training session with Benfica. After that session, one of the Benfica coaches told me, “Nani, tell your coach at Real Massamá that you have to play on Sunday. Someone from Benfica is coming to watch you.”
I was super excited. But the problem was that we had already won the league, and my coach wanted to use those who hadn’t seen much action during the season. So I told him, “Please!! I have to play!!”
He said, “Why? We’ve already won.…”
I said, “Yes but someone from Benfica is coming to see me play!”
He began to think.
“PLEASE! PLEASE! PLEEEEASE!!”
He said, “O.K! You’ll play the first half, but that’s it!”
So the game began and I was so stressed. Nothing was coming off. But three minutes before halftime, I got the ball in midfield. I went past all their players, and then I danced around the goalkeeper and scored. Everyone in the stands started to cheer and applaud. I thought, This is probably the goal that is gonna save me.
After the game, a director from our club told me, “You know, Nani … there was nobody here from Benfica today.”
I was like, WHAT???!!
He wasn’t joking. I was devastated. I was nearly crying. I even lost my appetite. But a few days later, he came to me with a letter. Surpriiise.
It was an invitation from Sporting to train with them for two weeks.
I just went, Yeaaah! And then I thanked God.
It has always felt like someone is looking out for me. Like God has his hand on my shoulder. Even when I was at my lowest, he had me covered.
At the end of spring in 2003, I began training with Sporting. But I also trained with Benfica, because the coach there had let me join them again. It was pretty crazy: On Monday I’d be training with one of the two biggest clubs in Lisbon, and on Wednesday and Thursday I’d be training with the other.
But at the end of my spell with Sporting, one of their coaches, who used to be a gym teacher at my school, told me that they could not keep me.
“But,” he said, “you can come back and do preseason with us if you want.”
I think most players would have thought, Screw you. If you’re not going to accept me, I’m not going to train with you. But I knew this guy. I didn’t want to be rude to him. So I accepted. Then toward the end of the summer, I got a text from Sporting, “Meet 10 a.m. tomorrow.”
But I also got a text from Benfica. “Meet 10 a.m. tomorrow.”
I typed, “Yes, O.K.” and sent it to both.
Nicolas Asfouri/AFP via Getty ImagesThis was preseason, so I could no longer train with both clubs. Maybe I should have chosen Benfica, since they hadn’t turned me down yet. But I had a lot of friends at Sporting, and I knew the coach. So I went back there, and in a tournament toward the end of preseason, I played really well. Two days later, the coach patted me on the back.
“Nani,” he said and smiled, “I always knew you were going to stay with us.”
When I signed for Sporting in summer 2003, all my financial problems were solved. I even had the means to go to Cape Verde, and I found out that my dad had run into some problems with his documents and had never been allowed to return to Portugal and our house in Amadora. So I arranged for someone to sort it out, so that he could visit me whenever he wanted. That was a big deal for me.
But I still had a problem. I was far too weak to become a superstar.
It was embarrassing. I couldn’t even push up 20 kilos. So for the next two years I lived in the gym. I evolved into a winger who had skill and power. In 2005, I made the first team.
Just two years after that, the papers were linking me with some of the biggest clubs in the world.
Not many mentioned Manchester United. But my agent, Jorge Mendes, wrote down the names of all the clubs and said, “Look. For me, the best team you can choose is this one.”
He pointed at Man United.
“I spoke with Sir Alex. He wants to build you up the same way he built up Cristiano.”
Before I knew it, I was looking for a house in Manchester.
At the start I was supposed to move into a hotel, but Jorge asked me, “Would you mind staying with Cristiano?” Jorge was his agent, too, and Cristiano was living alone. So I moved in with him and Anderson, who had just arrived at Man United.
What a time it was. We were all young lads who spoke the same language, and we had so much fun. Cristiano had a swimming pool, a Ping-Pong table, a tennis court — and every day we would compete at something. One time we had a quiz with Carlos Queiroz, Sir Alex’s assistant. I gave my answer and Cristiano gave his, and I knew mine was right. So you know what Queiroz did? He tried to change the answer to make sure that Cristiano would be right. Hahaha!!
Jon Super/AP PhotoThat’s what it was like with Cristiano. He could never accept losing. Never!
But we loved that about him, and we learned a lot from him. By the time Anderson and I left that house, we had become allergic to defeat, too!
After that I moved into my own house. I still don’t know why I bought it … you know the old houses in the movies? It was one of those. Some of my family members stayed there with me at the start, but when they left, it was a very difficult time for me. When it got dark, I didn’t dare to get out of bed.
I’m serious. If I was sitting in bed with my laptop, and I got hungry, I would never go downstairs to the kitchen. No, no, no. I’d wait until the next day.
I still wonder why I felt that way. Maybe it was the trees swaying in the wind when it got dark? Maybe the house was too old, or too … big? Maybe it was because, for the first time in my life, I was living alone?
I’m still not sure … I just know I was scared as hell.
The training at Man United was frightening, too, at least at the start. The level was so high. But I knew I had to learn quickly. In the projects, if you did not prove yourself every single day, you were finished. It was the same in Manchester.
And also, just like in the projects, God put the right people in my path.
There are so many I could mention. Sir Alex was like a father to me. Guys like Rio Ferdinand and Ryan Giggs gave me so much good advice. I became friends with Antonio Valencia, Fábio and Rafael, Cristiano, Anderson and many others. But the one person I opened up to the most was Patrice Evra. He was like a brother to me.
There was one period when I wasn’t playing well. The fans weren’t happy with me. Sir Alex wasn’t happy either. I was so angry with myself. One day it actually got to the point that I broke down crying.
So I went to Pat, who was doing muscle recovery in the jacuzzi at the training ground, and I just began to pour out all my frustration.
I was like, “Pat, why isn’t my hard work paying off?”
“Pat, why are the referees always against me?”
And then I began to psyche myself up. I was like, “Pat, I’m gonna turn this around! I know how strong I am! I’ll show them!”
Pat just sat there and listened. Then he got up, hugged me and said, “I know. I know. The fans will love you again. You’ll soon be scoring goals again. You are one of the best players I have seen, Nani. I have no doubt about this. No doubt.”I just know I was scared as hell.
About a week later, I scored an amazing goal against Chelsea. Suddenly I was playing my best football. Everyone was happy. My confidence was back.
Soon after that, Pat came over to me, looked me in the eyes and said, “THAT’s my boy!”
It was such a great moment.
So yeah, Pat is another person who I was fortunate enough to meet. I always knew that with hard work and confidence, anything is possible. But sometimes, when you feel really down, you just need someone to help you on your way.
You need the luck of getting to know someone who you can be so open with. But you also need to be honest about how you’re feeling.
Today I know that some people may not really understand me because I always show my emotions. If I am sad or unhappy, I will show it. But I want to be like this. I don’t want to change who I am. You see people go from having nothing to having everything, and they become different people and lose their way. I have always told myself, The day you forget who you really are, you’re done.
So yeah, in a way I am still that kid who slept with the rats and the lizards. I am still that seven-year-old who turned up to training in leather shoes and a button-down shirt.
I am still that boy who knocked on people’s doors asking for food.
And I feel grateful for that, because it has given me a career that has been fantastic so far. It has been a very long road, but God planned it every step of the way.
There have been too many coincidences for all this to have happened at random.
Alex Menendez/Getty Images
And, well, if you still don’t believe me, then I have one more story.
When I was 12 years old, I played a game for my community team with my friend Sabino, and with Mustafa as coach, in a very dangerous neighbourhood called Bairro 6 de Maio. When we got there, police officers with guns were looking for something. Our opponents were older than us by two or three years. Once the game started, they began to shout. “Go for his legs! Go in hard!”
Around the pitch, loads of people were shouting, too.
I was scared. All of us were scared.
They scored one, then another, then another. At halftime they were leading 9–2.
When we had our team talk, we were all criticising one another.
“You have to run more!”
“Dude, you’re scared out there!”
“So are YOU!”
But then Mustafa said, “Guys, relax. We’re gonna win this game. Just relax.”
We all took a deep breath.
Then he turned to Sabino and me. “Sabino, Luís, take a break. You’ll come back on soon.”
When the second half began, we began to play better. We were less nervous. Mustafa’s speech had worked. As soon as Sabino and I came on, we scored. Then we scored again. And suddenly the atmosphere changed. Our fear went away. We began pulling off nutmegs and tricks. The people around the pitch were like, “Oh my God, did you see that? These guys are good!”
Now they were supporting us!
We began dominating the game completely. Some of the girls from the neighbourhood even went to get water for us. That was when we really felt invincible!
We won the game 16–12.
Afterwards, everyone came onto the pitch and went crazy. “Ahh! Ahh! These kids are incredible! Incredible!” And then a girl came over to me with a pen and a piece of paper.
I looked at her and thought, What am I supposed to do?
Mustafa said, “Sign! Sign!”
I was like, “But what do I sign?”
Mustafa said, “Sign your name!”
So I did. Then Mustafa put his arm around me and said, “Lucky girl. You know, in a few years, that signature is gonna be worth a lot of money.”
For once, Mustafa was wrong.
I had written Luís.