‘I Don’t Want to Be in My Comfort Zone’: Exclusive Interview With Levante UD and Portugal Star Tatiana Pinto

To say things are going well for Tatiana Pinto would be a colossal understatement. The 29-year-old midfielder helped Portugal qualify for their first-ever FIFA Women’s World Cup back in February, last month she made her 100th appearance for the national team in front of a record crowd in Guimarães and just a couple of days ago, her club side Levante confirmed their presence in next season’s UEFA Women’s Champions League. A creative midfielder with a phenomenal ability to drive her team forward into attacking areas, she can pick out a pass and has a keen eye for goal. The Oliveira do Bairro native has been a driving force in Levante achieving their European dreams – chipping in with 12 goals and three assists this season.

We caught up with Tatiana to talk about the highs and lows, leaving home early to pursue a dream, becoming a champion with her childhood club and much, much more.

“It’s a beautiful coincidence. Because I think, not just (what is happening at) Levante, or with the national team but women’s football across the world. England has been such a good example for everyone else, full stadiums, Wembley sold out. I’m really privileged and honoured to be a football player right now, at this moment because it is such a nice time to play and to enjoy all of the good things that are happening. It’s growing very quickly.”

Things haven’t always been this way for women’s football though and for 29-year-old Pinto, her early experiences in relation to football are completely different to those of a child growing up today.

“When I was younger, we had no role models in the women’s game, I didn’t have the opportunity or the chance to see women (footballers) on TV, to find someone who could inspire me. Of course, I always looked to the men’s game because in my house we could only see the men. I always looked up to the Portuguese players, I saw Cristiano Ronaldo, Luís Figo, Nuno Gomes, Rui Costa, Deco, Nani, Ricardo Quaresma – those are some big, big names that I saw play! I also looked at Xavi and Andres Iniesta because they were incredible but I always followed more the Portuguese players. In my house, we didn’t have so much money to see the other games (from other leagues).”

Pursuing Her Dream

With no professional championship in Portugal at the time, Tatiana packed up her things at 18 years of age and moved to Germany to play for SC Sand and within a year she was on the move again, this time to England to play for Bristol City (then called Bristol Academy).

A young Tatiana Pinto in action for Bristol Academy – image via Getty

“My first goal was to become a professional. In Portugal, I couldn’t be professional, we didn’t have a professional championship, and we had no professional teams. I had to move to take my football seriously. I took the risk to go to Germany and then Bristol. These experiences were fantastic and incredible for me because I learned a lot, even with all of the mistakes that I made, because we all make mistakes – that’s part of life. I honestly feel that I really grew a lot during these two experiences. I was alone, I had to learn a new language, make new friends, everything was new. I was very young, 18 or 19, and I had to do everything by myself so it makes you grow faster, you need to sort out things alone and very quickly. I think it was very good for my career but also in life personally.”

The Homecoming

Whilst she was in Germany and then England, things were ticking along in Portugal in relation to the development of women’s football. Sporting CP, the club Tatiana and her whole family support were blowing the dust off a women’s team that had been shelved since 1994. In 2016, the FPF invited clubs from the Primeira Liga to join the women’s football in a bid to enhance and develop the league, Os Leões responded to the call and the Sporting CP women’s team was reactivated. What Sporting then needed if they were to challenge in the league was talent and players who wanted to represent the club – Tatiana fit the description perfectly.

Tatiana with former Sporting CP president Bruno de Carvalho

“All my family are Sporting, so I had no chance! We won everything. I couldn’t believe it. I accepted the challenge and obviously, I was very happy but the main thing was I was thinking, ‘You will be a professional, in your country, in your home, with your family and friends close to you and for your home club! So it was something I really wanted to be a part of.”

Sporting embarked on a period of unrelenting success from the word go. The Verde e Brancos didn’t lose a single match for the first two seasons, winning the Liga title twice and the Taça de Portugal twice. In the first season, Tatiana scored 11 goals and in her second campaign she scored 13.

“During the two years we won everything there is in Portugal to win, we won everything! Of course, I wanted to put my name in the history of the club because I think Sporting was and still is doing a good job in helping women’s football in Portugal and my name is there in the history and that was my goal.

Of course, when you win too many times, it also comes with some kind of discomfort, a kind of, I don’t know? It’s like a feeling of staying in your comfort zone and that’s not good.”

Crossing the Iberian Border

After five seasons with Sporting, the Portuguese international decided it was once again time for a new challenge. She opted to join Levante UD, a side that enjoyed much success during the late 1990s and early 2000s, winning four Primera División titles and six Copa de la Reina’s. Today, they are still a very competitive side and one that fights at the top end of the table for a spot in the UEFA Women’s Champions League. Tatiana believes that when she signed for Levante she wasn’t just a different, more experienced player but a different person.

Tatiana celebrates after Levante qualified for the UEFA Women’s Champions League

“I am a completely different person and player right now. I’m older but I think it’s because of all of my experiences. When I was in Germany, maybe it was too early that I moved? I was…not prepared, in England, I felt that was a time when I learned a lot, I had good players around me and it was when I realised that I really wanted to be a professional player. Right now I feel more experienced because I have passed through a lot of things, both good and bad but I don’t know, it’s like I feel comfortable in a good way. Comfortable with the club, with the coaches and with the teammates. We have a healthy group and that is one of the keys that have put us in third place. We have a really good environment, healthy, fun, we have no problems with each other and we try to help each other. That makes all the difference. I feel comfortable with the way the team plays, it fits me well. Of course, I have learned a lot from the coach and I challenge myself all the time which is good. I don’t want to be in my comfort zone. I feel happy and I enjoy playing football here. I feel good both physically and mentally. I think mental (health) is so important to talk about because it’s something that can be very dangerous both in sports and in life generally. I feel prepared physically, mentally, tactically and technically. when you combine those things, that’s when you are in top form. The most important thing in football in sport is how we manage our mistakes. Mistakes are normal but how we react is really the key.”

“The manager (José Sanchez) is very demanding but what I really enjoy about him is that he always has a plan. He is always searching for solutions so we always have either a plan or a solution. I feel confident with him, he has this group of players that he can get the best out of, as a group we are doing amazing and he’s doing a good job. He is very demanding but he knows us very well, he knows what to expect from us. I’m really enjoying it (playing under Sanchez).

How the National Team Has Changed and Making 100 Caps

“I never dreamt to make 100 caps, I dreamt about being a professional player and I dreamed also about representing my country. Those were my dreams, what I didn’t know was that I would make history for both my clubs and the national team and it’s been crazy! I have been in the national team for nearly 10 years. We made the Euros in 2017 (for the first time ever), then we failed to make the World Cup (in 2019), we then went to the Euros again (2022) and now we are now going to the next World Cup! It’s crazy to see the differences, the evolution, everything. In terms of the conditions, in terms of where the players are playing, the professionalism, how the players are physically, how they are investing in themselves, it’s crazy, everything together is making an impact on our national team. We are growing so quickly and I feel that every single camp we go on, the improvement is crazy.”

The Portugal team celebrate after qualifying for the FIFA Women’s World Cup

Portugal qualified for the FIFA Women’s World Cup for the first time back in February, beating Cameroon in dramatic fashion in a play-off. Portugal controlled the early part of the game and after 22 minutes Diana Gomes had fired Francisco Neto’s side into the lead. From that point on, a combination of nerves, anxiety and perhaps being taken in by the occasion allowed Cameroon to grow into the game and in the 89th minute Ajara Nchout equalised to momentarily break Portuguese hearts as the game looked headed for extra-time. Portugal fought back incredibly and Carole Costa converted a 93rd-minute penalty to send Portugal to the World Cup and the supporters into dreamland.

” That game was…different! It was (played) more with our emotions. It was very hard to control those emotions and as a group after 30 minutes we lost our mental side, we were playing with our hearts. Early on we were controlling the game, pressing high, and recovering balls, but after we the made mistakes but we made up for it. It was meant to be! We suffer a lot and then we go! It’s Portuguese culture.”

Portugal kick off their FIFA Women’s World Cup campaign on July 23rd against the Netherlands. You can also catch Tatiana Pinto in Liga F for Levante UD and in the UEFA Women’s Champions League next season.

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