Shining under someone else’s shadow is often an unenviable task. Living up to unrealistic expectations and dealing with irresistible comparisons are obstacles all Sporting CP wingers have had to overcome since the emergence of one of the game’s greatest from the very academy pitches they play on. Cristiano Ronaldo raised Luís Figo’s bar further than anyone could’ve imagined, virtually out of reach.
The prospect of facing up to all that plentiful potential wasn’t an opportunity a 20-year-old Luis Carlos Almeida da Cunha wanted to turn down. So, naturally, he moved in with the man he was trying to emulate.
“Nani” was what his older sister nicknamed him when he was a child growing up in a district outside Portugal’s capital of Lisbon. “Not Ronaldo” was how many people would refer to him in the years to come – but all that can wait.
Abandoned by his parents and brought up by his aunt and siblings, Nani was placed on a football pitch for the first time by his brother. His promise in Real Massama’s youth sides sparked a fight between two of the country’s biggest clubs for his services, one that carried on for a year.
One day Nani would put on the green and white and train with Sporting; the next he would be in the red of Benfica. He would spend alternate days at the two different set-ups for 12 months until Sporting sent him to work with the senior team for pre-season. There he found the likes of João Moutinho and Miguel Veloso; the former on the verge of a Portugal call-up at 19 and the latter making his first strides in Paulo Bento’s squad.
It was alongside them that Nani started the following season’s Taça de Portugal final against Belenenses. Experienced heads complemented the exciting, exuberant young midfield that day. Ricardo kept a clean sheet and Liédson struck three minutes from time to bring Sporting their first major trophy for five years – and Nani the first of many. A second season in his homeland matured his game, while a first Portugal cap and brief flashes of brilliance in the Champions League shone a spotlight on the teenager.
Having seen this all before, Sporting scrambled to table a new contract for the starlet, only to be rejected in favour of an ambitious new chapter. After missing out on Gareth Bale, Manchester United turned their attention to Nani and spent £20m on the winger. He arrived with an 18-year-old Anderson, Carlos Tevez and the more senior Owen Hargreaves as part of the biggest spending spree since the Glazers took charge.
To help him settle in Manchester, Nani moved in with Cristiano Ronaldo, someone who he had more in common with than anyone else in football. Confidence didn’t seem to be an issue for Nani in those early months at Old Trafford, concealed by a youthful enthusiasm and naivety. That was laid bare by his first United goal, a rasping shot that caught out Paul Robinson in the Tottenham goal at the Stretford End – not that he’d have saved it anyway.
The long-range piledriver made another appearance a few weeks later when Nani sent a stunning shot flying past Mark Schwarzer in a 4-1 rout of Middlesbrough. From then on, Premier League goalkeepers jittered with a fearful inkling of being beaten by another blaster from the boot of the Portuguese kid from distance. Proof of his background in the Capoeira martial art, something he learnt as a child, could be seen in every celebration consisting of flip after flip at great speed.
Having spent the first half of the season being drip-fed starts by Sir Alex Ferguson, Nani began to have a say in the most important match-ups between England’s elite. He spent the third and fourth rounds of the FA Cup watching Ronaldo, Rooney, Giggs, Scholes, Tevez, Carrick and co see off Aston Villa and Tottenham from the substitutes bench.
Drafted in from the start in the fifth round against Arsenal, the winger put in a decisive display at Old Trafford, giving Emmanuel Eboué a torrid time at the Theatre of Dreams. After Rooney had headed the hosts in front, Nani fronted up the Ivorian right-back on the edge of the area. A sharp turn took him away before having enough time to stop, look up and clip in an accurate cross for Darren Fletcher to head in.
By the 38th minute, Arsenal and Arsène Wenger were begging for half time. Michael Carrick picked up the ball in the visitors’ half, turned back to face his own goal, before spraying a perfect pass into the path of Nani, running in from the right this time. He hit it after one touch with his left foot, leaving Jens Lehmann hopeless. The fourth came after Eboué had been sent off, with Justin Hoyte tasked with dealing with Nani. He didn’t. A selection of step-overs opened up space for another cross, which Fletcher also met.
A month later, he didn’t just experience his first Old Trafford meeting with Liverpool, but he was the driving force behind a crucial three points on the way to the Premier League title. Originally on the sidelines, he replaced Giggs on the left side of midfield with United a goal up against the ten-man Reds. Within six minutes he was celebrating with his housemate having crossed for Ronaldo to net the host’s second. Two minutes later, he latched on to Rooney’s reverse pass before surging through the small gap between Steven Gerrard and Martin Škrtel and whipping one into the bottom corner from the edge of the box.
Ferguson’s men defended their title with a win at Wigan on the last day of the season having been pushed all the way by Chelsea. Domestic success was almost considered the minimum requirement by the high standards that the board and manager set at Old Trafford then. In Europe, Scholes’ powerful strike against Barcelona sent the Red Devils to their first Champions League final in nine years.
There they would face familiar foes in the shape of John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba. Ronaldo planted a header past Petr Čech in the Moscow rain before those three names decided the fate of the trophy. Lampard equalised; Drogba saw red; Terry slipped. Nani did what Ronaldo, Terry and Nicolas Anelka failed to do and scored his pressure penalty in the shoot-out. Had he missed, he would’ve watched those in blue parade the prize around the Luzhniki pitch. Instead, in his first season at one of the biggest clubs in the world, he picked up the pinnacle in form of that big-eared cup.
The story was the same a year later, but the ending was different. Carles Puyol was the one lifting the trophy high into the Rome sky as Nani, an unused sub against Barcelona, and his teammates watched on from behind the Stadio Olimpico running track. Soon after, Ronaldo, down on his haunches after the final whistle, was gone, trading Manchester for Madrid.
Antonio Valencia, Michael Owen and Gabriel Obertan were all recruited by Ferguson to help fill the void of the Ballon d’Or holder, but none of them were expected to emulate his stats. That pressure fell on the shoulders of his compatriot, who had come via the same path and played in his position. An inconsistent start to the following campaign brought the first proper problems to Nani’s doorstep. He was in the team one game and out the next, unable to rediscover the joy he’d expressed during his first months at the club.
While away on international duty, he dared to poke the wasp’s nest: “People expect more from me and it’s not easy,” he told Portuguese newspaper I. “I could be doing better, scoring more, but just think, I make a huge game today but the next one, I’m not even sure that I will play. Such a situation breaks the confidence.”
Nani’s reportedly fractious relationship with his manager was evident when he spoke about the Scot: “He’s a very complicated guy, very complicated and he is tough. If things are okay, he will be okay. But if there’s anything he believed to be wrong, you are screwed. He can go from complimenting you to just plain trashing you in a matter of minutes.”
As it turned out, the 23-year-old went from displays that lacked discipline and a final product to performances that got the United fans off their seats. After the turn of the year, his season sparked into life with a scintillating solo strike against Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium, which saw him wriggle between Gaël Clichy and Samir Nasri before clipping over Manuel Almunia from an impossibly tight angle.
Four minutes after giving his team the lead, Nani bolted down the right, leading a typical United counter, and played a gift-wrapped pass, complete with Wayne Rooney’s name on it, for the England striker to slot home. Ji-Sung Park completed the statement victory as United chased front-runners Chelsea at the top of the table.
“Maturity is why we’re seeing the best of him now,” Ferguson lauded his Portuguese winger. “His last three games have been absolutely first class but today was his best.” That first-class player continued to take to the field until May. If it wasn’t for Arjen Robben’s improbable volley at Old Trafford, Nani would’ve been the hero of that Champions League quarter-final, netting two of United’s three first-half goals.
Just as in Moscow, he kept hopes of a trophy alive when he struck the winner at the Stadium of Light on the penultimate Premier League matchday, but Chelsea’s demolition of Wigan saw the title leave United’s clutches for the first time in three years. It returned 12 months later, along with a personal honour for Nani, voted players’ player of the season by his teammates.
Nani and United missed out on another Champions League on the home straight, unfortunate to have competed at the very top at the same time as Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona. They were victorious on their next appearance at Wembley three months later, with Nani rounding Joe Hart to complete a Community Shield comeback that kept with the club’s tradition against their “noisy neighbours”.
By the time he mockingly dinked a finish over Wojciech Szczęsny, United already had four against Arsenal and would go on to get eight.
A scorcher against eventual European champions Chelsea was followed by more flips and a title charge that would go to the final day. Roberto Mancini, Sergio Agüero and City would deny the Red Devils a 20th league triumph but only delay the inevitable milestone as Sir Alex bowed out of management with his 13th Premier League medal in resounding fashion.
Referee Cüneyt Çakır and Ronaldo would half Ferguson’s last bid for silverware on the continent as Nani was sent off in the last-16 against Real Madrid before his former club companion slid home to send United out. Ronaldo, by then in a titanic tussle with Lionel Messi and Barcelona for footballing supremacy, held his hands up to the home crowd apologetically.
There were plenty feeling sorry for themselves at Old Trafford the season after as David Moyes could only start a dismal campaign that failed to finish in European qualification. Nani’s last two years in the north-west of England were blighted by injury until he decided to return to Sporting. An impressive homecoming campaign earned him his second Taça de Portugal, nine years after his first, and a move to Fenerbahçe.
Most fondly remembered for some trademark strikes and an important goal in the semi-final of the Turkish Cup, Nani played his way into Fernando Santos’ Portugal squad for Euro 2016 in France. With structure and strategy at the top of the coach’s priorities, Nani formed half of a strike partnership that also included a three-time Ballon d’Or winner.
Ronaldo couldn’t score against Iceland in their opener in Saint-Étienne but Nani did. A goalless stalemate with Austria followed the draw with England’s future topplers before a frantic game against Hungary in Marseille brought the best out of the forward duo. Nani netted Portugal’s first and Ronaldo their second and third. However, Hungary wouldn’t lie down and held Portugal to a point again.
Luckily for them, they progressed as one of the best third-placed finishers and would face Croatia in the last 16. After countless chances went the Croats’ way, Ricardo Quaresma stooped to head Portugal through in extra time with penalties looming.
Penalties came and Nani, a reliable taker from the spot, put his past Łukasz Fabiański to put pressure on Poland’s Jakub Błaszczykowski. Rui Patrício saved to his left and set up Quaresma to send Portugal into the last four. There they would be the villains in Wales’ fairytale as Ronaldo and Nani scored two minutes apart to slay the dragons.
Growing up on the outskirts of Lisbon, the winger would’ve watched, maybe cried, as Portugal fell at the final hurdle in their home tournament as Greece collected their first major honour ahead of the hosts. He also would’ve watched a 19-year-old Ronaldo cry at the nearby Estádio da Luz that night.
Then, 12 years later, he watched him cry again, this time from an even shorter distance, the global superstar clutching his knee, his tears glistening under the Stade de France lights. He strapped the captain’s armband to Nani’s left arm while lying on the pitch and left, leaving his former housemate to bring the trophy home. With Portugal significantly weakened, France pushed for goals.
Antoine Griezmann should’ve scored but didn’t. Rui Patrício denied Oliver Giroud and Moussa Sissoko before André-Pierre Gignac found the foot of the post. Then, in the second half of extra-time, Éder, on loan to Lille from Swansea, beat Hugo Lloris from distance and immortalised each and every member of that Portugal squad.
Ronaldo, who’d spent the entire remainder of the final strutting up and down the touchline, took the armband back off Nani. He stood right in the middle of his teammates on the winners podium, the Portugal flag tied around his waist, knee bandaged and held the trophy aloft.
As he bent down to kiss the cup, Nani’s face came into view as he celebrated in the background. Even if he had spent large parts of his career staring at someone else’s silhouette, Nani stepped into the spotlight to show what he could do often enough to make him one of Portugal’s greatest modern successes.
By Billy Munday @billymunday08