The hero’s welcome given to Nani on his return to Lisbon was in stark contrast to his farewell from Manchester. Most people could barely summon a “meh”; the majority of those who were animated wanted to say good riddance rather than wish him well.
Even the club barely bothered to say goodbye. The official Twitter feed settled for a matter-of-fact announcement of his departure. No thanks, no highlights package, no leaving card, nothing. It was all a bit underwhelming for a man who played 229 times for United – more than authentic heroes like Ruud van Nistelrooy and Paul McGrath.
Nani deserves better than that. He was not a great player for Manchester United, and his seven-year career at Old Trafford must ultimately be viewed as a disappointment. Yet there are myriad reasons, many beyond his control. And that overall judgement obscures the fact that, for a couple of years from the start of 2010, he was the equal of any attacking player in the Premier League.
When United won their record-breaking 19th title in 2010-11, Nani was their Players’ Player of the Year – even if, tellingly, the fans’ award went elsewhere. He was also in the PFA Team of the Year, and John O’Shea was not alone in being “pretty amazed” that Nani did not make the shortlist for the PFA Player of the Year award.
In that time Nani was close to a guaranteed source of goals and assists. His 24 assists in the the two seasons from 2010-12 were comfortably the most in the Premier League, and he scored 17 goals in that time as well. There were still inconsistencies in his game, as there will always be with a player of his nature, but he had added intimidating efficiency to his game without losing his capacity to take bums off seats in excitement. In short, he had cracked it.
Even though he was much more than a highlights player in that time, his YouTubability matches almost anyone in the world in the last few years. He scored some astonishing goals, both big dippers from long range and twinkle-toed solo efforts, as well as deceptively excellent efforts, the kind only a class act can score.
Nani’s diving and perceived lack of physical courage were commented on so frequently that they obscured the fact that he had rare moral courage. In the Champions League final of 2008, for example, he took the crucial fifth penalty. In open play, Nani always wanted the ball – whether he was having a shocker, whether his team were having a shocker. That often led to him look stupid, but he never changed. His rivals in the last few years, Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia, were often guilty of hiding – either not showing for the ball, or getting rid with a square pass. Nani always wanted the ball and always tried to make something happen, no matter how many knocks he took.
Many of those knocks came from his manager. Sir Alex Ferguson had a strange relationship with Nani. Even when Nani was at is best, Ferguson didn’t seem to truly trust him: at the back end of that 2010-11 season, Ferguson went with Valencia and Park Ji-sung for the title run-in and the Champions League final. And yet there were times when Ferguson would show almost blind faith. He weirdly picked Nani ahead of the in-form Valencia for the title decider at Manchester City in 2011-12, and recalled him unexpectedly for the Champions League match against Real Madrid a year later.
Nani was sent off in that game and, whether you perceive that red card as harsh or not, there’s no question he would often end up being blamed by Ferguson for important defeats. Ferguson even broke one of his golden rules – never criticise your players in public – after the League Cup defeat to Chelsea in 2012. Ferguson has a degree in people, but he never quite worked out how to manage a deceptively complex character. Nani was a hard habit to break, because he knew how good he could be. "He is one of the best match winners in the game - and I am including the whole of Europe,” said Ferguson in his last season at Old Trafford. “ He has scored the most incredible goals. The boy has a talent for winning matches."
It is hard to escape the sense that Nani needed more such comments, and that undermining him in public – after a League Cup match, for heaven’s sake - and in the dressing-room ultimately backfired. Nani is not Cristiano Ronaldo; he is not fuelled by bronca. He’s just an ordinary, insecure human being and an extraordinary footballer who needs the carrot rather than the stick. There has always been something of the confused, innocent child about Nani – the way he always wants the ball, his immature reaction in certain situations, most notably when he headbutted Lucas Neill and then fell over pathetically. Even his seal dribbling against Arsenal was more the act of a kid getting carried away than someone trying to humiliate an opponent.
That essential immaturity made it hard to understand the extent of the dislike towards Nani. Many United fans can’t stand him. Modern footballers are not the stand-up guys they used to be, in either sense. If you only like those whose character you recognise or think you recognise, you won’t have much to support. At least Nani is ingenuous, unlike most of his peers. He is not calculated or a bad human being, just a bit of a kid who hasn’t quite grown up.
Most of the things Nani has done wrong – diving, wastefulness in possession, even having a statue of himself in his house – are tolerated in isolation, yet something about the way Nani does them seems to rub people up the wrong way. It doesn’t help that his diving is frequently utterly inept and seen as more embarrassing than that of more accomplished simulators.
The crying at Anfield, used in evidence against him by the Rambos of the press box, was overplayed. There will be many genuinely tough men who have shed a few seconds’ tears without realising after, say, having a dentist’s needle plunged into them, a physical reaction to extreme physical pain. It is likely Nani’s was a similar response, combined with a bit of shock, after his leg was cut to the bone by a despicable challenge from Jamie Carragher.
Whatever the reason for the tears, there is something dubious about singling out the man who cried rather than the one who threatened an opponent’s career. It was reminiscent of Cristiano Ronaldo being castigated for winking while Wayne Rooney avoided significant opprobrium for driving his studs into a man’s testicles. Nani, more than almost anyone else in the Premier League in recent times, represented the residual mistrust of the foreigner. He dived, he was unreliable, he cried.
And yet all this would not have mattered to United fans had he continued or even extended his form of 2010-12. There were a number of reasons why he didn’t. A series of irritating injuries restricted him to 14 league starts in the last two seasons; when he did play he had clearly regressed, and he progressively lost Ferguson’s trust. He was also a victim of Ferguson’s increasing belief in prosaic wingers like Young, Park, an ageing Giggs, Danny Welbeck and Valencia – all football equivalents of picking a bowler because he bats a bit.
When Nani played, particularly in big games like the City title decider or Madrid, he was one of only two serious attacking talents. An unfair burden, and yet it was Nani who was often blamed rather than the man whose tactical cowardice in big games caused the problem in the first place.
Nani’s career is usually discussed in the context of Cristiano Ronaldo. And while that simplistic comparison put far too much pressure on him, the biggest obstacle in his United career was Antonio Valencia. Nani often had to play on the left because of Valencia’s embarrasing one-footedness. Nani played well on the left at times, and scored some storming goals when he cut infield, but he was more consistent and more creative on the right, from where he hit some beautiful crosses.
There were times when Valencia was unplayably good, most notably in the second half of the 2011-12 season, yet there were other periods when it felt like he was given preferential treatment. The one time Nani got a run in his best position, when Valencia broke his ankle in September 2010, he had the best season of his career. Next stop, rocket science.
Nani is far from blameless in all this. He could be stunningly infuriating, and he made the little girl with the little curl seem like the personification of equilibrium. But to say it is entirely his fault is to ignore the complexities of confidence, the fragility of modern man, and how everything in life is so interlinked that apparently minor decisions – criticising a player after a League Cup match, say, or signing a right-winger with no left foot – can have unforeseen consequences which ultimately have a huge impact on a man’s career, and a man’s life.
Nani has regressed to the point where he is, to use Ferguson’s description of the player he signed, “pure raw material”. He was 20 then, he is 27 now. It might be too late for Nani to accomplish everything we thought he could, but he deserves a bit more respect, and a bit more affection, for what he has achieved.
You can buy Rob's book, 'Danish Dynamite: The Story of Football’s Greatest Cult Team', which is out now.
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- Sir Alex Ferguson