Orlando City’s Nani respects players skipping MLS is Back tourney, but he never considered opting out

In a professional soccer career that began when he became a first-team regular at 18, Nani won four Premier League titles and the Champions League with Manchester United, plus 112 caps and the Euro 2016 championship with the Portugal national team. In the Euro final against France, he was wearing the captain’s armband when teammate Eder scored the winning goal in extra time.

And yet there he was Monday afternoon, wearing a facemask adorned with tiny Orlando City FC logos and talking on a Zoom call with soccer reporters about his preparation for the MLS is Back Tournament that commences Wednesday.

If anybody in Major League Soccer does not need to be in competing in this event, it has to be this guy. He gave no thought, however, to passing on the opportunity to enter the “bubble” the league has attempted to create at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex, which is designed to keep out the COVID-19 pandemic and facilitate a monthlong event that returns MLS to active competition.

“I have a different mind and a different way to think about soccer, about everything that is going on in the world, about myself,” Nani told Sporting News. “I’ll always try in the difficult moments to find a motivation to keep going, thinking about life does not stop, you must continue to live, must continue to believe in the future. I always think, ‘If I stop now, I will not be able to continue further when there is a possibility.’

“That’s why my decision always was to come to this tournament, continue to make my way to what I want.

“Obviously, I heard about some players not coming. That is a situation we all must respect. Because part of being a soccer player or athlete, we are human, and we must respect some decisions of players not comfortable to be here. They prefer to be with family, to protect themselves and families. But I respect, also, everyone who decided to come here because this is life. We must continue to fight for what we want in our lives — to make a better world, better moments and better days.”

On Monday, with Wednesday’s opener between Orlando City and Inter Miami CF so close, news broke that reigning league MVP Carlos Vela would not compete for LAFC in the MLS is Back Tournament. Real Salt Lake defender Nedem Onuoha also is opting out. There are players, such as LA Galaxy midfielder Jonathan Dos Santos, who are missing because of injury or personal concerns. In an ordinary circumstance, some might have been able to return to action within the next week or month. But these times are not ordinary.

Nani said there are sacrifices to competing in an event such as this, but safety within his surroundings is not one of them. The players are living at a Disney resort equipped with plenty to keep them fed and entertained. Those who leave the bubble, though, cannot return. Inter Miami goalkeeper Luis Robles also said he feels safe in his current circumstances.

“I think the hardest is the mental part,” Nani said. “Once you’re here, you are away from home, family, and you’re not allowed to see them regular, any day you want. So you must be strong and wait until the end of the tournament, because that’s what everyone wants, to be there at the end of the tournament.

“Once you think like that, you know it’s going to be long, but you must handle it, you must be strong and believe everything is going to be OK and try to maintain contact and communication with your family, make sure they are safe.”

Orlando City finished 11th of 12 teams in Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference last season. Inter Miami is in its first year as an expansion team. These are not two powerhouses the league is rolling out to announce its return, but you have to start somewhere.

Nani was scheduled to earn just short of $2.5 million in a full 2020 MLS season, so there are financial reasons for him to compete. It’s more than that, though. This is a chance for him to do what he has done better than all but a fraction of people who’ve visited planet Earth. He is one of fewer than 500 male players who have earned at least 100 caps for any national team. He has appeared in two World Cups.

“I’m looking forward to competing again, to get back on the field and play soccer,” Nani said. “It’s what I’ve done all my life and been missing a lot, for so long, so many months because of this situation, this pandemic. I’m so excited to come back.”

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