For most 20-year-olds, an important goal in a UEFA EURO 2008™ qualifier would be memorable enough for one week. Or if you need more excitement, how about playing at the UEFA European Under-21 Championship? But Portugal winger Nani is not only doing all that, but has also agreed a dream move to Manchester United FC.
"It all happened very fast," the former Sporting Clube de Portugal starlet told uefa.com. "It seems the clubs reached an agreement quite rapidly and from then on I knew my career would continue at Manchester United. They are one of the major clubs in Europe. Any player would like to play in Manchester United. All I have to do now is to keep working and giving my best to prove to be worthy of the confidence shown in me. I know I'm young and I have still to learn many things."
Before linking up with United and another winger to make the journey from Sporting to Old Trafford - Cristiano Ronaldo - Nani has the U21 finals to deal with. He was in the Portugal team that exited in the group stage on home soil last year, but will come to the Netherlands fresh from his classy goal in Saturday's 2-1 UEFA EURO 2008™ win in Belgium, the nation who coincidentally Nani and co face in their Under-21 opener on Sunday. "The Belgium senior squad had many Under-21 players," Nani said. "That goes to show how strong the Under-21 finals are. It was a very difficult match and we don't expect our Under-21 clash to be any easier."
Cape Verde-born Nani may have become a fixture in the senior Portugal side this season, but it will not be a come-down to return to the junior competition. "The European U21 Championship is the second biggest UEFA national team competition and it's a privilege to be able to play in it," Nani said. "Some of us have already played in the senior team but that doesn't mean we don't look at the U21 competition in the same way we did in the past.
We fought hard to get here and we'll do our best to do well. All the experience we have gained the senior team is positive because we can use that experience in this U21 team."
The disappointment of last summer's edition, when Portugal had been tipped as potential champions, still remains for Nani. "The fact we had a strong team and were playing at home made the public think we were already in the final and this was not good. I'm not saying this was the reason we failed but it showed that the names and quality of the players don't win matches. Scoring more goals than the opposition is the only way to win. It takes a lot of effort and concentration to beat strong teams like the ones we faced last year and the ones we'll face this year. We shouldn't forget we had to come back from three goals down in the play-off against Russia to be here. I'm sure we learned from that too."
José Couceiro's Portugal side will be counting no chickens, thinking of a semi-final slot and qualification for the Olympics rather than lifting the trophy, not that they are ruling it out of course. "Our coach set a main objective which is to quality for the Olympics," Nani said. "But it's obvious that if, and only if we get there, we would be one step away form the final. And any team in that position has a real chance to win."
Nani, whose family migrated to Portugal when he was very young, grew up in a poor area of the Lisbon suburb of Amadora. There he played street football with one Manuel Fernandes, the former SL Benfica product who spent this season with Everton FC - and is alongside his old friend in the Portugal U21 squad. "He didn't live next door but he had a relative that lived near us and he was always with our group of friends," Nani said. "
We played football all the time. Of course back then we could only dream of playing in the national team. Doing it together, it's one of those unimaginable things but we're delighted that we both succeeded in doing what we like the most."
The dreams could now keep on coming true for Nani, first if his nation succeed in the Netherlands, and then if he goes on to emulate Ronaldo's success at United, where he is joining fellow Liga signing Anderson, from FC Porto, and another compatriot, assistant manager Carlos Queiroz. "At least I'll have them to speak Portuguese with!" smiles Nani. "Of course they will be important especially in the initial period of adapting to a different country. As for the trio playing together, that's up to the coaches to decide. It would be great to play alongside them. They are two of the best players I know so it's a privilege to have them as club-mates."
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