By Mike Woitalla
Here are a few more glimpses into the childhoods of players starring at the 2012 European Championship:
From shantytown to millionaire
Nani (Portugal). When he played pickup games in Santa Filomena, a shantytown northwest of Lisbon, Nani picked weaker players for his team so he would see more of the ball.
The five-a-side games, winning team stays on, were played on a concrete field near his home. But getting to training with his first club, Real Massama, required a 3-mile walk along railroad tracks. If running late, he would hop on the train and evade the ticket collector.
Nani was born Luis Carlos Almeida da Cunha in Cape Verde, an African island nation that was a Portuguese colony until 1975. His family moved to Portugal when he was a small boy, but his father went to Cape Verde on vacation when Nani was 7 and never came back. His mother left for the Netherlands when he was 12, by which time Nani, the youngest of 10 children, was already being raised by an aunt while his older brothers filled his father’s role.
“We would steal fruit and other stuff to eat,” Nani said. “I went on some bad paths, but I would always return to the right one.”
The youth association Espaco Jovem and Real Massama, which also provided him meals, helped keep Nani out of trouble.
"It was difficult to live [in Santa Filomena], always problems with the police and shootings,” Nani said. “There was violence. There was a big gang of us, close friends, who used to go around together when we were young. Now some of those guys are in prison. Soccer was the only way to get out."
He joined Portuguese power Sporting at age 16 and debuted for its first team at age 18 in 2005 and for Portugal a year later. In 2007 he moved to Manchester United on a $39 million transfer.
Pride of the Canary Islands
David Silva (Spain). Asked how his soccer career started, Silva recalled following his father to games and practices and playing on the sidelines. “And playing in the streets with the other children of Arguineguin,” he said. “We never lacked for a ball.”
But his grandmother, Antonia, remembers further back, when 4-year-old David would kick oranges and potatoes around the yard -- until she got tired of the mess and made him a ball out of cloth.
Silva’s father, Fernando, served as a policeman and played ball for a semipro team that at one time included a young Carlos Valeron, who went on to play 46 times for Spain, including at two Euros and the 2002 World Cup.
That Silva followed in Valeron’s footsteps means that Arguineguin, a fishing village of 7,000 on the Canary Islands, has produced two of Spain’s most skillful playmakers of the last decade.
At age 14, Silva was invited to try out for Real Madrid and made the 1,100-mile journey to the Spanish capital only to be rejected because of his lack of size. He never grew past 5-foot-7, but months after the Real rejection, Silva moved into Valencia’s residency program.
Although his mother, Eva, was of Japanese descent, Silva was nicknamed “El Chino.” His parents followed him to Valencia, where his father was employed as a stadium security guard. Silva won the Bronze Ball at the 2003 U-17 World Cup at which Spain finished runner-up. After loan spells with second division Eibar and Celta Vigo, Silva earned a starting spot with Valencia at age 20. In 2010, he joined Manchester City, which he helped to last season’s EPL title with 17 assists.
Further reading -- Euro 2012 Stars: When they were children:
Cristiano Ronaldo & Welbeck
Schweinsteiger, Iniesta & Sheva