In modern football, the full-back position has been getting more and more important, with the marauding raids made by the two key players unsettling the opposing defences. Moreover, the full-backs now act as de-facto central midfielders, actively participating in the build-up, rather than sitting passively and waiting to stop the opponents.
There are a few players who embodied this spirit in the last years, but few of them have been doing it as consistently and as efficiently as Portugal’s Joao Cancelo. Dubbed as both the best right back and the best left back in the world, as he can play on both positions, Cancelo was also called “Mr. Versatility” for his excellency on both flanks of the pitch when he plays for Manchester City at club level.
At Qatar 2022, Cancelo has been once again outstanding, this time for Portugal, growing of age and delivering great games, fulfilling his potential for one of the top candidates for the trophy.
But all of it could have gone totally different, as Cancelo first had to overcome a huge personal challenge, then hating his position when he got back on good terms with football and eventually starting to get better and better, despite his frictions with club coach Pep Guardiola.
Born in Barreiro, a small city close to Portugal’s capital, Lisbon, Cancelo was brought through the youth system of Benfica, one of the giants of Portuguese football, but before he made his big break and started playing for the second side of Benfica, tragedy struck.
Driving alongside a motorway in Portugal after leaving her husband at the airport, with Joao and brother Pedro in the car, Cancelo’s mother, Filomena, lost control of the steering wheel and crashed into a barrier. While the kids were only left with scratches, Filomena died.
“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 your father and brother. I am dead inside, but I will be strong and I will give you the greatest pride in the world,” said Cancelo in a heartfelt Instagram post.
It was the moment that defined his career, with the full-back even pondering to stop football. All of Benfica’s staff were close to him and even if he made some mistakes, everybody offered a shoulder and an embrace.
Soon, Cancelo’s career started to pick up and he moved to Valencia, in Spain, then at Inter Milan and Juventus, before signing for Manchester City in 2019, on his way to becoming one of the best players in his position.
And it was all due to the promise Cancelo made his mother, to try and become even better and better. Basically, he played for her, modeled his career for her and always did the best he could to make her proud, even if she was not here anymore.
“Only I know what she did for me; the difficulties we both went through, the conversations she had with me when there was no money at home. I would tell her that I would try to do everything to give her a better future so that she would never have to work again. And today, even though she is where she is, I do everything to make her proud of me,” said Cancelo.
“When I lost my mother, I felt like I was at the bottom of a well. I felt like a robot that had to do its job, then go home, then another day – day in, day out. When I lost my mother, I didn’t enjoy my football; I was playing because I had to. I really thought of giving up because it didn’t make sense anymore. My love for the game started to gradually come back; my smile slowly returned. That’s what life is about. However big our losses, we have to carry on. I read a lot of stuff about warriors and certain things really resonate with me,” added the player.
That motivation really delivered one of the best players in the world right now, as Cancelo’s grit in defence and technique in attack is surely a gamechanger for the teams he plays in.
So much so that even Pep Guardiola, his manager, praised him and even made a public apology for not using him to his strengths in his first years at City. Now, the team’s loyal fans could not even imagine a starting team without Cancelo in it.
“Everyone knows how important he is and what he’s done, Joao can play in many positions, can play every day due to his physicality, and he’s so funny and loved in the locker room,” said Guardiola. Whether Cancelo become a world champion with Portugal or not at Qatar 2022, his legacy is still intact, as one of the players who changed his position. The trick is to stay there and stay true to himself, as his mother would have wanted