Nani outshines Portugal team mate Ronaldo at Euros
By Matt Smith
PARIS (Reuters) - Portugal’s Nani is poised to make his 99th appearance for his country in a crunch clash with Hungary on Wednesday and has been an automatic choice for the Selecao for a decade, yet there is a feeling the forward has not fulfilled his dazzling potential.
Nani, blessed with searing pace, mesmerisingly quick feet and more tricks than a children’s entertainer, will turn 30 in November and Euro 2016 could give the Fenerbahce star the platform for a transfer back to one of Europe’s elite leagues.
Scorer of Portugal’s sole goal at the tournament – a neat finish in a 1-1 draw with Iceland – Nani has so far outperformed his captain and former Manchester United team mate Cristiano Ronaldo although he should have added to his tally of 18 international goals in Saturday’s stalemate against Austria.
Nani’s 12th-minute angled drive forced a fine save from the keeper, while a first-half header thudded off the post. Those misses perhaps encapsulated Nani’s career: good, but could have been so much better.
Lauded as Portugal’s best attacking prospect since Ronaldo, Nani was signed by Manchester United from Sporting Lisbon in July 2007, a year earlier than the English giants had wanted because of interest from rival clubs.
"We have been monitoring Nani for almost as long as Cristiano," then manager Sir Alex Ferguson told Manchester Evening News at the time.
"He is different to Cristiano in that he can play on both sides of the pitch but also in the middle. He is quick, has a terrific engine and I know we are getting a very talented, flexible player."
That move, for 25.5 million euros, was reward for Nani’s dedication as he overcame a difficult upbringing.
Born in the former Portuguese colony of Cape Verde, a volcanic archipelago off the West African coast, Nani moved to Lisbon as an infant with his family.
His father abandoned the family soon after and his mother moved abroad when he was about 12, leaving him to be raised by an aunt in an impoverished district of the capital, according to newspaper reports.
EXCELLENT SET PIECES
Nani made his debut for Sporting Lisbon in August 2005, taking his international bow the following year and was soon off to United.
Often used out of position on the left wing to accommodate Ronaldo, Nani initially struggled to justify his transfer fee but his set pieces were excellent and he ended that first season with three goals and nine assists from 26 league starts.
Nani was also a substitute in the 2008 Champions League final, converting a penalty in United's shootout win over Chelsea.
Yet he soon became the target of supporters’ frustrations, especially after Ronaldo departed for Real Madrid in 2009.
Ferguson seemed reluctant to trust Nani, instead selecting the one-dimensional but more dependable Antonio Valencia on United’s right flank.
When Valencia broke a leg in September 2010, Nani seized the chance to become the team’s attacking talisman, registering nine goals and 14 assists in 33 league starts to help United claim a fourth league title in five years.
His team mates voted him their player of the year but Valencia’s return meant Nani was relegated to the bench for the season run-in, with the Ecuadorian starting in United’s chastening 3-1 loss to Barcelona in the 2011 Champions League final.
Nani was again productive the following campaign, delivering eight goals and 10 assists from 29 league starts, but was barely used in Ferguson’s final season of 2012-13, especially after receiving a harsh red card in a Champions League defeat by Real Madrid.
He never re-established himself and Louis Van Gaal off-loaded him to Turkey’s Fenerbahce in 2015.
Nani, Portugal’s fourth most capped player, has thrived in Istanbul, prompting newspaper speculation about a move to Italy’s Inter Milan or a return to Old Trafford.
For now, the winger is focused on the Hungary encounter as Portugal attempt to extend an excellent record of reaching the semi-finals in four of their six Euros appearances.
“I think our moment will come, and it’s right in the next match,” Nani told uefa.com. “There is no other way, it really has to happen.”
(Reporting by Matt Smith)