By Mike Woitalla
Here are a few more glimpses into the childhoods of players starring at the 2012 European Championship:
'The Little Bee'
Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal). The Real Madrid star was born on the island of Madeira, which lies 600 miles southwest of mainland Portugal. His real surname is Dos Santos Aveiro, but his father, Jose Dinis, called him Ronaldo after his favorite actor, Ronald Reagan, who was the U.S. president at the time.
Jose Dinis worked for the city as a gardener and his mother, Dolores, was a cook. Ronaldo was the youngest of four children who lived in a house so small they put the washing machine on the roof. The house was deemed an eyesore by Madeira politicians and demolished a half decade ago.
"One Christmas I gave him a remote-controlled car, thinking that would keep him busy," his godfather Fernao Sousa said in Luca Caioli's biography, “Ronaldo: The Obsession for Perfection.” “But he preferred to play with a soccer ball. He slept with his ball, it never left his side. It was always under his arm -- wherever he went, it went with him."
Jose Dinis also served as an equipment manager for the Andorinha soccer club in their hometown of Funchal, and Ronaldo played for Andorinha until he moved to Maderia’s biggest club, Nacional, at age 10.
The young Ronaldo earned the nickname abelhinha -- “little bee” -- because he never stopped zig-zagging across the field.
After one year at Nacional, he left home to join the Sporting Lisbon youth program, where schoolmates teased him about his island dialect, leading to scuffles and calls to his mother begging to return home.
But Ronaldo settled in and dazzled with his skills, which led to a pro debut at age 17 in 2002.
Smart kid chose soccer
Danny Welbeck (England). The 21-year-old forward, who scored and assisted in England’s 3-2 win over Sweden, was born in Manchester to parents, Victor and Elizabeth, who had emigrated from Ghana. Both are social workers who aid children with learning disabilities.
Danny played pickup games on Markfield Avenue in Longsight, an inner-city part of Manchester: “Playing on the streets back then, you would be doing things in the little games and you’d think ‘I’ll do this at Old Trafford.' Now it’s finally happening -- it’s the stuff that dreams are made of.”
But before he was spotted by Man United, an 8-year-old Welback was rejected by Manchester City.
“My dad didn’t tell me at first,” he said. “I was only a little kid at the time and he didn’t want to tell me anything bad just before Christmas.”
Victor told Danny about the Man City rejection after he’d been welcomed by Manchester United. He suffered from Osgood–Schlatter disease in his teens but still excelled and played at every level of the English youth national team program.
Both of Welbeck’s older brothers went to universities but Danny, despite outstanding grades -- he was awarded a remarkable nine GCSEs (General Certificates of Secondary Education) -- couldn’t be convinced.
"What would I have studied at university?" Welbeck said. "Football!
"The teacher would say: 'Not everybody makes it as a footballer, so what do you want to be?' I'd say: 'A footballer.' The teacher would say: 'But not everybody makes it. So what do you want to be?' I'd say: 'A footballer.' Every year that happened! Nothing was going to get in the way of me being a footballer."
Read the first of the “Euro 2012 Stars: When they were children (Bastian, Iniesta & Sheva)” series HERE.
(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, coaches youth soccer for Bay Oaks/East Bay United SC in Oakland, Calif. He is the co-author, with Tim Mulqueen, of The Complete Soccer Goalkeeper, and More Than Goalswith Claudio Reyna. Woitalla's youth soccer articles are archived at YouthSoccerFun.com.)