The rise of Joao Cancelo: From personal tragedy to becoming Man City's own Philipp Lahm

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  • Manchester City
    Manchester City
    LiveTodayTomorrowvs--|
  • Pep Guardiola
    Pep Guardiola
    Former Spanish soccer coach and player
  • João Pedro Cavaco Cancelo
    LiveTodayTomorrowvs--|
  • Philipp Lahm
    Philipp Lahm
    German association football player
Joao Cancelo has been in standout form for Pep Guardiola's team this season - GETTY IMAGES
Joao Cancelo has been in standout form for Pep Guardiola's team this season - GETTY IMAGES

At Benfica Campus, where Joao Cancelo’s picture adorns a giant mural, a story is still fondly remembered about a young player who stopped a training session for trialists who were trying to earn a place at the Portuguese club.

Cancelo had already played reserve-team football but returned to the Under-19s for the session and did not like what he saw. There would be little point in carrying on the session if the standards were not high, so he told the young hopefuls exactly what he thought.

“João was furious about some mistakes made by these trial players and was tougher in some tackles,” said Rodrigo Magalhães, Benfica Academy technical co-ordinator. “He was very demanding about them.

“He warned them out loud, saying they would have to be more capable and show commitment if they wanted to train at Benfica. The training session stopped and the whole team was impressed with João's reaction and demands. I think this is a good example of the type of mentality he had.”

Perhaps it is the perfectionist within Cancelo that appeals to Pep Guardiola, who has turned the 27-year-old into his latter-day Philipp Lahm as he starts games at full-back and angles towards central midfield. If Guardiola could design a footballer it would resemble something similar to Cancelo.

He was manufactured in Lisbon, where he was scouted as a 12-year-old playing for FC Barreirense and was brought to Benfica as a winger and a right-back, although his qualities meant it is no surprise to Magalhães that Cancelo is influencing matches in central midfield to a level where he is already a contender for Manchester City’s player of the year.

Even at a young age, Cancelo's talent was obvious, according to Benfica Academy technical co-ordinator Rodrigo Magalhães
Even at a young age, Cancelo's talent was obvious, according to Benfica Academy technical co-ordinator Rodrigo Magalhães

“We recognised that positional variety in his ability, associated with a strong game knowledge, that could lead him to be able to play as a midfielder,” said Magalhães. “But, during his development process, João was always seen by us to play as a full-back or winger.”

It was on the training pitches of Benfica Cancelo was given his nickname Cigas, short for Cigano, which translates as “Gypsy”. He was playing against players physically more developed but had forced his way into the first-team squad at 18.

Even at that age, he was described as “playful” with the squad, which has stuck with him through his career. When Ilkay Gundogan was asked what Cancelo was like around City’s Etihad Campus, he replied instantly: “He is a very funny person, he likes to joke around with the other players.”

Yet Cancelo’s life has been touched by tragedy. Before making his debut his mother, Filomena, died in a road accident very close to Benfica’s training centre with her sons also in the car after they returned from taking their father to the airport. It has come to define his life and underpin his achievements in football.

"Today I can have everything I want and everything my mother and I always dreamt of. I have it all but I do not have her. It is a missing part of me and an emptiness within and there isn’t anything I can do to change it,” he said on International Women’s Day.

"I want to be successful in everything I do, to show my mother that she can be proud of the son she left behind."

It was his father, Jose, who then accompanied him on his route to Manchester City via La Liga and Serie A. At Valencia he was cited as one of the young players Gary Neville enjoyed working with during his disastrous short spell at the club, along with Jose Gaya, Paco Alcazar and Andre Gomes.

While at Inter Milan on loan he was remembered by team-mates for speaking his mind to Luciano Spalletti when many others would not talk back to the Italian coach. He was known as a forthright talker as well as a talent, which also earned him a title at Juventus.

'He is playing like Philipp at Bayern Munich'

It took him time to get accustomed to Guardiola’s way of training but last season saw him make an impact as an “inverted full-back”, starting on his flank but marauding inside as a playmaker. Last week was the perfect illustration of the role, as he curved a pass around Everton’s defence and invited Raheem Sterling to finish.

“Right now he is playing like Philipp at Bayern Munich when we were together,” said Guardiola. “In that position, the full-back inside and not just overlapping, Philipp Lahm is the best player I’ve ever seen in my entire life.

“Never have I seen a full-back move inside, moving into the pockets close to the holding midfielder. For that, I’ve never seen a player like that. But Joao, like Dani Alves, should play in that position. He could play there inside definitely, he has the quality like Phillip and Fabian Delph before for us.”

Guardiola noted that Cancelo’s character is a player who would play football “24 hours a day, every single day”. He sees similar childlike traits in Phil Foden and Riyad Mahrez and calls these players “diamonds”. Team-mates such as Gundogan can feel his immersion in football.

“It is obvious that he loves football so much because everywhere he is a ball is quite near whether the training room or the gym or the pitch as well,” said Gundogan. “He was really able in the last months to minimise mistakes and maximise the outcome of his individual situations.

“He is rarely losing the ball and always able to find solutions, like a pass, decisive moments in the last few games, assisting so many goals. He is a joy to watch, an attacking full-back but defending one on one quite strong. He became an important part of our game. He is crucial.”

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