How parents' divorce almost ruined Nani's career
By Sun News Publishing
Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Photo: Sun News Publishing

"How many of my games have you seen? Do you not watch the matches?" Nani, ever so slightly spiky, is keen to make one thing clear. He’s definitely not too a lightweight for the Premier League. Yet, suggesting to him that he might be is unreasonable.

At 5ft 9in and weighing a little over 10 stones, he’s hardly the most physically imposing player. Previous club, Sporting Lisbon, even prioritized bulking him up when he joined them from Real Massama.

Their coach, Francisco Janelas, however, is on record as saying that he knew Nani was going to be a "phenomenon" even if he was "thin and skinny."
The Portuguese winger dismisses the idea that success may be harder to come by against the behemoth defenders of English football.

"The game is a lot quicker in England and more competitive than in Portugal," he tells FFT. "You’ve got to be in good form to stand up to it. I might not be the biggest, but I can handle myself. You came up against strong footballers and it’s more difficult in the one-on-ones. But I’ve worked hard and I’m feeling very good. I’m adapting well, beginning to feel better and better on the pitch. I’m always thinking about getting out there. I’ve stood up to the test. So, not being so big hasn’t been a major issue."

There is clearly an element of defiance to the 21-year-old, a certainty behind his softly spoken diffidence. It was embodied in his outstanding performance in the 4–0 demolition of Arsenal in the FA Cup fifth round, when he created two goals and scored another. Wayne Rooney was Man of the Match, but Nani pushed his teammate close despite the differences in build.

As Motty declared: "One of the lessons we’ve learnt is that Nani is going to develop into a real Manchester United player." Nani expertly collected a Michael Carrick lob into the box with his right foot and swiveled to hook goal past Jens Lehman with his left for the goal. There ensued the now customary summersault back-flip celebration, virtually from a standing start on this occasion, but most revealing was the way he exuded an impassive Eric Cantona-like hauteur when mobbed by impressed teammates. It was as if he was saying he had just proven he belonged.

He crosses for the two Darren Fletcher goals that were pinpoint accurate after he twice outmaneuvered the hapless Justin Hoyte. By the end of the match, Nani was the toast of Old Trafford and the scourge of the Gunners. William Gallas almost butted him with his Mohawk for showboating. He ‘seal’ stunt, carrying the ball on his head, even drew criticism from Arsene Wenger, so he must have been doing something right. Perhaps, it was simply that the margin of victory was so comfortable, the game so utterly dead that it didn’t seem appropriate to open the box of party tricks or maybe he figured Arsenal had not tried hard enough to warrant deference.

Four days later, Nani’s arrival as a half-time substitute helped to turn around a 1–0 deficit against Lyon in the first leg of the last 16 of the Champions League. Nani’s Beckhamesque cross caused chaos in the home side’s penalty box, leading to Carlos Tevez’s equaliser. The new Ronaldo had well and truly arrived.

Luis Carlos Almeda da Cunta, to give Nani his full name, was born on the Portuguese island colony of Cape Verde, off the west coast of Africa. The family later moved to Amadora, a district on the outskirts of Lisbon, where he was brought up by his mother and his aunt and was mates with Everton midfielder, Manuel Fernandes ("it’s great we live close to each other now too"). His parent’s divorce affected the football-mad youngster, but his mum reportedly told him he would no longer feel "sad and distressed" when he became a well-known footballer.

Aged eight, he joined Massama, who snared a £850,000 windfall for their role in his development when the £14 million United deal went through in May last year. Massama coach, Hernani Fonseca recalls that Nani was so utterly obsessed with the game that rather than sleep with a ‘teddy bear or a toy like any other boy’ he would go to bed with a football.

"It was something like that," Nani cautiously admits. "When I used to get home from training I would usually have a ball with me so I would sit down with it on the sofa and curl up. At Massama, I hoped that one day I would achieve my dream of lighting up the world of football by hard work, effort and dedication, making the most of my chances. And here I am."

Nani was a Porto supporter as a boy despite going on to sign for Sporting Lisbon and Fonseca remembers that he and another future Portuguese Premier League import to the club, Ricardo Vaz Te, currently at Bolton, would rarely stop talking about the Dragons. Nani, though makes sure he pays his allegiance to Sporting, who launched him into big time. "Yes, my brother was a Porto fan and so was I when I was younger," he says. "I used to follow them, it’s true. Not for a long time, because Sporting got into my heart when I moved there."

The Massama president realised Nani was a bit special ("we noticed his potential when he was about 11, he had an ease on the ball and a way of moving") and alerted Aurelio Pereira, Sporting’s highly regarded youth coach responsible for tutoring the likes of fellow wingers like Luis Figo, Simao Sabrossa, Luis Boa Morte, Hugo Viana, Ricardo Quaresma and Ronaldo. The Lions wasted no time in snapping him up.

Nani progressed through the same feted youth system at Sporting’s sophisticated training complex as his illustrious green and white hoped predecessors. He was promoted to the first team at the start of the 2005/06 season, when Paulo Bento stepped in as coach following the resignation of Jose Pesseiro.
Bento, a former Sporting defender and Portugal international, is an instrumental figure in Nani’s history, he had coached Nani at youth level and, unlike Peseiro, trusted in his ability enough to throw him in at the deep-end. Nani responded to the challenge, scoring two goals in as many games at the start of the campaign.

"I learnt lots from Bento," Nani remembers. "Plenty about discipline, how to position myself on the pitch, as he put a lot of emphasis on this part of the game and was very rigorous about it. It was more important to him than the fancy stuff. He used to pull me up because I had my head in the clouds initially. It’s normal when you are only 17 or 18 years old to have your head in the clouds, isn’t it? There was always something he wanted to advise me on. If I was late for breakfast or if I didn’t even make it to breakfast because I overslept. If I was wearing a cap, he would tell that I had to rake it off. He gave me a chance and I took it. Paulo’s been the coach who has influenced me most."

Hernani Fonsea reckons Nani "would have been led astray by less desirable friends," had it not been for football, there are reports that on one occasion he brawled with Vaz Te in training and then went missing for a week. But with Bento, Luiz Felipe Scolari (Portugal) and now Sir Alex Ferguson as coaches, all solid disciplinarians with clear ideas regarding the instruction of young players, Nani was always likely to stay on track. "I am a happy kind of person who likes a laugh and I look out for what joke there is to be had in training with Ronaldo and Anderson," Nani says by way of explanation. Judging by the capoeira-inspired acrobatics he unleashes to celebrate every goal, he’s also something of the extrovert on the field.

Capoeira, the fight-dance martial art that originated as Africans rebelled against the oppression of their Brazilian slave masters, is close to Nani’a heart. He practiced the now trendy sport/art to a high level before giving it up to concentrate exclusively on football. But contrary to press reports, "Ferguson’s never said anything to me about celebrating my goals the way I do," insists Nani. "Nobody has. When I was 13 I used to do capoeira. I loved it but came to a certain point when I had to choose and I opted for football."

As for the manager, the pair are still getting to know one another. "It’s different with Ferguson to the way it was Paulo Bento. My English isn’t so good. The accent must be difficult for him to understand. Sometimes he says the odd thing but all he’s really ever said to me discipline-wise is to speak English when I chat in Portuguese."

Portuguese hacks concur that the goal Nani scored against Spartak Moscow in the 2005-06 Champions League heralded reports of the player’s talent outside of the country. Nani burst through a central channel and, after a neat one-two with Liedson, chipped the ball into the space in the box, where he proceeded to round the goalkeeper and finish from a tight angle.
"If they’re saying it was the goal that proved I had arrived, then great!" Nani says, chortling at the hyperbole of journalists.

"It was different to my first one for United against Spurs (a 30-yard winner), which was another of my favourites, because the pitch was much more crowded with players and I had to find a way past them."

Tottenham, as it happens, were in the hunt for Nani last summer but United were always first choice. The already established relationship with Sporting (the teams signed a now expired co-operation agreement in May 2003), Ronaldo’s dazzling impact and the influence of assistant boss, Carlos Queiroz all helped. "Carlos is an important figure for me at United, not just because he speaks Portuguese. He’s been at the club a long time and has a lot of involvement with the Portuguese players. He’s one of the reasons I’m here. He backed me."

According to Nani, Ronaldo was also consulted by United before they signed the player who has been compared to him. It must have been a glowing report, and Nani believes he couldn’t have a better role model than his world-beating compatriot. "I hope to have as much success as Ronaldo," he says. "I want to stay fit and healthy and work towards that. It hasn’t surprised me how many goals he has got this term because he was scoring great ones last year. I’m still settling down but the more I do the more I’ll start to score more myself."

It’s on the opposite wing where there’s likely to be a vacancy sooner, though and Nani is happy to wait his turn. "It isn’t difficult to have to wait behind a player like Giggs. Deputising for Giggs makes me proud, it’s a privilege. His movement off the ball is spectacular, it’s probably what I’ve learnt most from playing in England."

The burgeoning Portuguese-speaking community in and around Manchester United has smoothed the bedding-in process for Nani. Ronaldo and Quieroz were the forerunners but Manuel Fernandes, Ricardo Vaz Te and Nuno Valente have all followed and Anderson, the Brazilian, joined United at the same time. Nani is close to Ronaldo and Anderson (who says Nani talks incessantly) and the trio even lived together at Ronaldo’s first mansion.

Nani explains: "Ronaldo has been a great help. I spend a lot of time with him and Anderson off the pitch. When I arrived, he was a real support, particularly with the language. Now, we all live near one another. I go around to their houses quite a lot. There’s quite a few Portuguese players about and it’s like a Portuguese community is forming. It’s good for all of us."

And the stage is set for Nani. Settled in among countrymen, he can look forward to the latter stages of the Champions League, battling it out at the top of the Premier League and Euro 2008.
Nani is adamant that nothing is going to get in the way of the good times for him. "I’m still confident that United can win the league," he says. "It’s the club’s main aim and mine. For Portugal, as long as I’m putting in the effort everyday for my club, which I am doing, then I’ll be looking after myself and giving myself a good chance of getting picked."

And if Nani’s current rate of progress is continued, when the evergreen Giggs does finally hang up his boots, it may well be that the King is dead, long live the King.





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