This article is part of the Guardian’s Euro 2020 Experts’ Network, a cooperation between some of the best media organisations from the 24 countries who qualified. theguardian.com is running previews from two countries each day in the run-up to the tournament kicking off on 11 June.
“Thank you for lighting my way, mother”.
João Cancelo’s debut for Benfica’s first team, on 25 January, 2014, in a League Cup game with Gil Vicente, had an obvious dedication. Just a year earlier he lost his mother, Filomena, in a road accident very close to Benfica’s training centre, a few miles south of Lisbon. João, then aged 18, was also in the car, but suffered only minor injuries, as did his brother Pedro, now an under-19s player at Vitória Guimarães, but then only nine years old. They had taken their father, José, to the airport, and were returning home, already late, when they suffered the accident on the highway.
José was working in Switzerland, in order to earn more money for his family, and Filomena was juggling three jobs to provide a better life for her children, who spent most of their time with their grandparents in Barreiro, the industrial city south of Lisbon in which they lived.
João, who at the time was already training regularly with Benfica’s first team, dreamed of the day that he would have the financial means to tell his parents they no longer needed to work.
“I lost the light of my life, my reason for living. I love you, woman of my life. Wherever you are, I’m with you. I want you to look after me and protect my father and my brother. I’m dead inside, but I’m going to be strong and I’m going to give you the greatest pride in the world. You are my life, without you nothing makes sense. Rest in peace, mom,” wrote the player a few days after the tragedy, on social media.
The mourning kept Cancelo at home for approximately one month. He didn’t want to go to training and considered giving up football, but a conversation with his father changed everything. João returned with a well-defined mission: make his mother proud.
Just four months later, the right-back scored the two goals that gave Benfica Under-19s the national title, and in January 2014 he made his debut for the first team. Jorge Jesus, then in his first stint as Benfica’s coach, only gave Cancelo one more opportunity: it was on the last day of the season, with the title already assured, but that game against Porto meant the young defender was included in that triumph.
Surprisingly, at the end of that season, and with only those two games for Benfica under his belt, Cancelo was sold for €15m to Valencia, who had also hired the Portuguese coach Nuno Espírito Santo.
In three years Cancelo played almost 100 games for the Spanish team. A period in which he grew a lot, including some mistakes from which he learned. In April 2017 he scored a goal against Deportivo La Coruña and made a gesture which looked as if he was telling the fans to shut up, after which he was booed until the final whistle. “I’m having a bad time on a psychological level and that is why I had that reaction. It was not the fans’ fault. My gesture was misunderstood, it wasn’t for them. I prefer not to talk about what’s happening in my life,” he explained that day.
Irreverence. It has always been a strong characteristic of Cancelo. In Benfica’s Under-15s team he once made an ugly tackle on his coach, Bruno Lage, because he was unhappy about not playing the decisive phase of the season. Nowadays he talks about a father-son relationship he had with that coach who has taken charge at Wolves this week – and is thankful for the reprimands he gave him.
The full-back always played a lot with his heart, but over time has learned to have more control over his emotions. The passion remains non-negotiable, though, and that’s something the fans identify with. That is why, even after that negative moment at Valencia, he cried when he was given a standing ovation on his farewell.
“His attitude must be praised. He knew he was going to leave, but wanted to play. It demonstrates what this boy is, as a person. He hasn’t had an easy life, so far, but has a lot of character and a lot of feeling. I’m delighted to have met him,” said Marcelino García Toral, Valencia’s coach at that time.
Cancelo was loaned to Internazionale, and after that bought by Juventus, where he played alongside Cristiano Ronaldo, and has now been at Manchester City for two years, with Pep Guardiola. This season is very demonstrative of Cancelo’s tactical evolution, but that maturity comes a lot from the emotional side, and also explains why he’s also becoming more important for Portgual.
Cancelo made his debut for the seleção in September 2016, and remarkably scored in his first three games (admittedly against Gibraltar, Andorra and the Faroe Islands), but he didn’t make the squad for 2018 World Cup. After that he played all the games in the Nations League group phase, but wasn’t the first choice at the finals which Portugal won on home soil in 2019.
Now his status in the squad is higher , and Cancelo seems prepared to be one of Portugal’s key figures at the European Championship.
“I know that my mother is very proud of my journey. The only thing I lack is her. Today I have everything, I have a beautiful daughter, I also have a beautiful family and she deserved to see my success, more than anybody, but I know that she’s certainly proud of me,” he said recently, in an interview with Canal 11, the Portuguese FA TV channel. João Cancelo clearly still has more to give. In memory of his mother.
Nuno Travassos writes for Maisfutebol
Follow him on Twitter @nunotravassos
For a tactical guide on Portugal click here.