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How Luis Nani’s Career Halted Under the Weight of Expectation

Luis Nani, a curious case of ‘what if’ transpires when reminiscing on a career that promised so much, but effectively fell off the wheels. After departing Manchester United in 2015, Nani has been one of Europe’s famed journeymen, enduring testing spells at Fenerbahce, Valencia, a loan to Lazio and a short return to his hometown club Sporting Lisbon. Before departing Europe early last year into the ‘retirement home’ of the MLS with Orlando City. The 33-year-old, entering the honeymoon of his career, ventured to America to rekindle the fear he struck on defenders when he opened his box of tricks at Manchester United.

If it seems somewhat presumptuous that the former Portuguese winger has lost himself to football, then a career review of Luís Carlos Almeida da Cunha ‘Nani’ might just offer some justification. Beginning his career at Portuguese giants Sporting Lisbon, Nani rose onto the scene as a spritely 19-year-old graduating through the Academia Sporting in Alcochete in 2005. Big things were expected of the teen who had witnessed a whole host of talent graduate before him. Some of the players who went onto have glittering careers include; Joao Moutinho, Luis Figo, Jose Fonte and five-time Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo. The winger possessed an array of technical attributes that likened his ability to fellow Portuguese compatriot and Manchester United sensation, Ronaldo. Nani’s turn of pace lavished skill on the ball, a natural ability to use both feet, coupled with the nonchalant way in which he beat defenders, seemingly ticked the requirements that tipped him for greatness.

After being recruited to first team fame in 2005, the following season would see Nani struggle to find his feet in the Premier Liga. The teen registered 29 appearances in Sporting’s domestic league but contributed 4 goals and 4 assists. Although Nani’ figures bestowed to grab people’s attention, the attributes he possessed were of an aplenty in terms of his ability on the ball and this propelled him up in his manager’s estimations. In the following season, the 20-year-old matured into the first team set up; his figures saw a steady up-turn to a goal contribution of 12 with 6 goals and 6 assists to his name in just short of 30 appearances; he also recorded his first Champions League goal against Spartak Moscow in the group stages. Nani’s footballing exploits had seen an uprise over the course of the season and as the season reached its climax, Nani picked up the Portuguese League Young Player of the Month award for his efforts. The youngster’s footballing ability had certainly been touted by other clubs, namely Manchester United who had previously signed Cristiano Ronaldo from the Verde e brancos 4 years earlier.

After a long discussion between the Red Devils Portuguese assistant, Carlos Queiroz and Lisbon’s manager Aurelio Pereira, Manchester United had agreed terms with Nani over a 17 million pound move. Queiroz knew of Nani’s ability, but he asked questions of whether he had the mentality and inquired about the player’s personality. Queiroz wanted to know if Nani had the ambition to make it at the top-level. Pereira convinced the Manchester United assistant that Portuguese live-wire was the ‘complete player’.

Nani arrived at Old Trafford after Sir Alex Ferguson’s side had reclaimed their throne at the summit of the Premier League. With healthy competition across the pitch, Nani would find it difficult to fit into Ferguson’s 4-4-2 system which incorporated their breadth of attacking power. Ronaldo had elevated his game to the next level, reaching phenomenal numbers from his predominantly wide position. In the 2007/08 season, Ronaldo matched Alan Shearer’s Premier League record of goals in a 38 game season – scoring 31. After coming onto the scene possessing attributes that CR7 engraved into his game, Nani’s inability to deliver consistently has hampered the game of a player blessed with incredible raw talent. The Portuguese trickster put in a few man of the match displays and some notorious somersault celebrations to go with them – notably, his pile driver from outside the box against Tottenham, along with a cultured strike Nani had become ill-famed of against bitter rivals Liverpool giving him cult hero status. However, his first season remained a season of inconsistency to which United’s manager questioned his mental strength.

Despite struggling to find any consistency at his new home, Nani ended the season rich in silverware; a Premier League and Champions League winner in his first season. Pretty impressive for a 21-year-old.

In his second season, Nani was on the periphery of footballing action in the Premier League and only conjured up 13 starts. This was mainly due to the form of Manchester United’s attacking muscle; Rooney, Tevez, Ronaldo and new addition Dimitar Berbatov who were all preferred ahead of Nani. The disappointment for Nani was his lack of development since racing onto the scene as a spritely 18-year-old. The winger struggled to raise his game in terms of his ability to pick out the final ball or dispatching chances when given the opportunity. Again, Manchester United reached another Champions League final bowing out against an imperious Lionel Messi, marshalled by master tactician Pep Guardiola. However, United managed to retain their Premier League title along with a league cup success over Spurs.

The following season Ronaldo made a world record move to Real Madrid to which Nani would benefit from, or at least you would think. Again, symbolic of a player unable to get out of second gear, Nani struggled to match any consistent levels in his game at the beginning of the season and the player became frustrated at his lack of opportunities. Nani broadcasted his annoyance to the media, to which Ferguson reacted.

“I did not play the important matches, against Liverpool, Manchester City or Tottenham. Not playing these games, I am a bit sad. But for now, I am not considering leaving.”

After feeling disgruntled over being dropped, Nani started to deliver more confident performances later on in the season. The winger began to showcase his rip-roaring talents on the big stage; the lavished skill on the ball and his ability to use both feet began to prove fruitful in key games. Notably, his phenomenal run in which he bypassed multiple defenders with his agility and skill, before nonchalantly lobbing the goalkeeper against Arsenal in the Champions League, a moment Nani is fondly remembered for in the colours of Man United.

The 2010/11 season would be where Nani reached his peak at Old Trafford putting in some impeachable performances. Reaching the age of 24-years-old, it felt like Nani had been strutting his stuff (inconsistently) for a decade. But the player was still developing into what seemingly would be a talent performing at an elite level. Nani had various articles published on him which demonstrated his new released confidence:

“In the future, I want everyone to be saying Nani is one of the best players in the world. That is my ambition.”

Much like the player, Nani looked up to in the red of Manchester United, Ronaldo. The controversial winger began to establish ‘Ronaldo like’ performances that the Old Trafford faithful appreciated. Nani registered an almost goal contribution in each game he played – 10 goals and 20 assists in all competitions felt like the player had reached a maturity that his team had been crying out for. Nani’s connection with Wayne Rooney on the pitch had also proved advantageous in many games. Most notably, Nani’s assist for Rooney’s acrobatic effort against rivals Manchester City is a poignant moment in Premier League history.

The following season, Nani was expected to elevate his performances again. Despite delivering 8 goals and 12 assists in the league Nani and Manchester United endured an average season, topped off by conceding the league to their bitter rivals and ‘noisy neighbours’ Manchester City on the final day of the season.

In Sir Alex Ferguson’s final season, Nani encountered his most disappointing season to date. The Portuguese winger fell down the pecking order at Old Trafford and had to settle for barely a ‘bit-part’ role in Manchester United’s title-winning campaign – spearheaded by the magic of Robin Van Persie.

The seasons that corresponded in his time at the Salford based club were miserable; the two managers in the post-Fergie era David Moyes and Louis Van Goal didn’t make Nani a part of their plans and a loan spell at former club Sporting Lisbon followed before he embarked on his European road trip. Despite falling out of favour with clubs at domestic level, Nani continues to be a regular feature in Portugal’s national side. He’s picked up 112 caps for his country and was part of their triumphant Euro 2016 side who were without their talisman and leader Ronaldo on the pitch in the final.

Nani is someone who could have made it at the elite level of European football. A player with natural ability on the ball, produces moments of brilliance at times, yet frustratingly fails to elevate his game and lacks that elite mentality which takes you to the top. He’s also a rare species of player who rarely gets injured but is deprived of that goalscoring prowess and consistency. Despite only reaching his ‘peak’ in a solitary season at Old Trafford, Nani’s career promised so much more after graduating from the goldmine of talent that is the Academia Sporting in Alcochete.

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