Nani’s Finest Night

The similarities between Nani and Cristiano Ronaldo are unbelievable. Born in Cape Verde, Nani emigrated to Lisbon where he was raised by an aunt after his parents abandoned him. The youngest sibling in a large family, Nani was taught the game of football by a brother, and got a trial at Real Massamá, his first youth club, due to the efforts of another. Ronaldo was born in Madeira, with ancestry from Cape Verde, into a poor family. The youngest of four siblings, he was also introduced to football by a member of the family. His father worked as a kit man at Andorinha, Ronaldo’s first youth club. This is when the coincidences really start to pile up.

Both players were eventually signed by Sporting Clube de Portugal as youngsters, making their professional debuts a couple of years apart. Ronaldo was famously signed by Sir Alex Ferguson in the 2003 offseason, after he impressed in a friendly against Manchester United. While the transfer fee of over £12 million was enough compensation for Sporting, they could also be comforted by the fact that they had another explosive winger coming through the system. In 2005, Nani made his debut for Sporting and, after two successful years, he followed his compatriot to Manchester United. Nani cost over £25 million, double the price of his future national team captain.

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While this disparity in prices clearly did not imply a similar gulf in talent, Nani was undoubtedly meant to become Ronaldo’s equal for Manchester United. In the 2007-2008, Ferguson deployed a standard trident of Ronaldo, Rooney and Tevez, and as such Nani, along with Anderson, Saha and Giggs, were meant to be back ups. He started well with a sumptuous 30 yard winner against Tottenham within a month of his inaugural Premier League season.

Overall, he had a productive year with a return of 13 assists and four goals, including one in a 3-0 victory over Liverpool. However, he was outshone by the first truly world class season in Ronaldo’s career, where he lead Manchester United to the European double with 42 goals and eight assists. His performances would lead to a first Ballon D’Or in 2008, as well as incessant speculation about a transfer to Real Madrid. The move would eventually transpire in the summer of 2009, after the Spanish club offered their English counterparts a record breaking transfer fee of 80 million pounds.

While the transfer was heartbreaking for United fans, they were also optimistic about how it gave Nani the space to grow. After all, he had scored 10 goals and created 17 more in his first two years, which was similar to Ronaldo’s 15 goals and 13 assists between 2003-2005. There seemed to be no reason Nani couldn’t become Ronaldo’s successor as Manchester United’s mercurial winger.

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However, this failed to take into account their respective personalities. While Nani was undoubtedly a talented player and a hard worker – it’s pretty difficult to achieve what he has without that – but Ronaldo is a different beast. Nani was never going to be able to replicate the efforts of his Portuguese compatriot, and even his quite acceptable achievements were deemed a failure. Even in his most successful season in 2010-2011, when he scored 10 and laid on another 20, he was faced with accusations of inconsistency. Ronaldo’s shadow was growing ever longer, and Nani was finding it impossible to get out from under it.

After six years at Manchester United, Ronaldo joined Real Madrid, his boyhood club and possibly the only bigger side in the world at the time. Ever since, Ronaldo seems to have somehow become an even better player, scoring at a ridiculous rate of over a goal a game in the last seven seasons. After seven years in England, Nani’s stock had seemingly fallen so low that even after the disastrous Moyes campaign of 2013-14 he was deemed unnecessary.

He was loaned out to Sporting for a season, and eventually sold to Fenerbahçe in 2015. In the following season, he had a solid return of 13 goals and 14 assists, but in the footballing hinterland of Turkey. Much has been said about Euro 2016 being Ronaldo’s last real shot at an international trophy, which, as we now know was duly delivered, but it is often forgotten than it could conceivably be Nani’s last tournament as a starter.

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Going into Euro 2016, Fernando Santos decided to ignore Portugal’s historic problem with strikers, and pair his two most influential players up top. Nani and Ronaldo would play as makeshift strikers, in front of a young, but talented, midfield and an ageing defence. In a side struggling for creativity and focused on defensive organisation, neither player would have many chances. However, despite this, Nani started the tournament well, scoring against both Iceland and Hungary. Yet again, though, he was overshadowed by his illustrious teammate who scored two against Hungary, and took the plaudits for dragging Portugal into the knockout round. Nani’s contribution was ignored, especially after Portugal beat Croatia when Quaresma scored from a blocked Ronaldo shot. This was followed by a dire match against Poland, salvaged by a stunning performance by 18-year old Renato Sanches, where Portugal progressed after penalties.

As the tournament continued, Portugal had started to gain a reputation as a defensive team, especially since they had yet to win a match in 90 minutes. This image was finally blown away in an outstanding performance against Wales in the semifinal, as both Ronaldo and Nani got on the score sheet. While these performances would guarantee Nani a new lease of life in the guise of a transfer to Valencia, he was yet to get the adulation he deserved.

Despite his play against Wales, he had once again been surpassed by Ronaldo, who had run the show and created a sublime image with his powerful header from a corner. Going into the final, despite the Portuguese camp’s statements to the contrary, the match was described as France against Ronaldo plus ten. When Ronaldo got injured minutes in, and then had to be substituted in tears less than a quarter way through the match, the contest seemed to be over. Who else could lead the Iberians to the promised land? Ronaldo’s shadow had finally subsided. It was Nani’s turn in the spotlight.

As the senior most player remaining on the field, and as a close friend, Nani rushed over to console Ronaldo as he was stretchered off. In return, he was granted the captaincy, a responsibility he clearly felt he could fulfill. And fulfill it he did, as he made Ronaldo’s injury not an event to be mourned and deflated by, but rather a slight to be avenged. Nani was on a one-man mission to make France pay for their actions, and his incredible tenacity and desire rubbed off on his teammates. No longer were the Portuguese overawed and sloppy, rather they became determined and ruthless.

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France were shut out, and Éder came off the bench to score his most important international goal to give his country their first international trophy in extra time. The Portuguese players had played brilliantly, Santos had got his tactics spot on, and Ronaldo’s quasi-managerial antics on the touchline undoubtedly inspired his teammates. But none of that would’ve been possible if it weren’t for Nani’s incredible leadership when the chips were down.

Nani was not the best player on the night, and he was not the player of the tournament. He was not even Portugal’s best player on the night, or of the tournament. When the 2016-2017 season starts up, Ronaldo is probably going to score another thirty league goals, while Nani is probably going to struggle in an ambitious Valencia team. Years from now, Ronaldo is going to be remembered as one of the all time greats, if not the greatest, while Nani will be consigned to the history books. But this should not take away from the events of July 10 2016. Nani’s actions in the face of an impossible situation should not be forgotten.

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Originally written by Tarutr Malhotra for the Sixth FebFollow Sixth Feb on Twitter@sixthfebblog

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