UTD Podcast: Inside the Nani enigma
At last, UTD Podcast has managed to pin down the mercurial Nani – a task that defenders have been wrestling with for 15 years and counting.
The Cape Verde-born winger has long been an enigma. For much of his time at United (2007-2015), players, staff and fans were never quite sure what his ridiculous talent would produce from one week to the next. So what chance did the opposition have?
His career in M16 was a fascinating one, which is discussed in extensive, anecdotal detail during his wide-ranging chat with the podcast's presenters Sam Homewood, Helen Evans and ex-defender David May – out next week.
There was a lot to get through. His relationship with modern-day demi-god Cristiano Ronaldo, for starters – the compatriot he lived with and battled for a starting place in United's staring XI for several years. His critical penalty in Moscow. His quirky relationship with Sir Alex Ferguson. The many amazing goals he produced.
It's a conversation I, for one, was eager to hear, because Nani delighted and intrigued me for years as a United fan.
To be brutally honest, at times he also irritated and infuriated me. And I think many Old Trafford regulars would say the same.
Nani's top 10 goals for UnitedVideo
At his best – roughly for 16 months from January 2010 to the end of the following season – our then no.17 would often provide moments of something close to genius. Two-footed, poised, with an almost embarrassing ability to confuse and taunt opponents, top-form Nani could pose a danger to any opponent in the world.
In full flight, he was a glorious sight. Always graceful, whether moving quickly or in a more controlled fashion, on certain days it seemed nothing could prevent his abundant box of tricks from scattering magic and panic all over the gaff.
But, strangely, that year-and-a-half seemed to come from nowhere. Like Nani himself had done in the summer of 2007. And his golden spell disappeared again almost as quickly as it had arrived.
For me, Nani's first goal summed up his entire period in M16. In a game against Tottenham that was locked at 0-0, with nothing happening, he simply blasted one in from 30 yards midway into the second half to earn the three points. Unpredictable, brilliant, but as changeable as the Manchester weather.
Then he unfurled his trademark somersaulting celebration. That fixed him in fans' minds for a time, no doubt. He became thought of as a trickster, an exhibitionist as much as a footballer.
United had been linked with the Brazilian Kerlon – famous for his seal-style dribble – the year before Nani's arrival, and some fans seemed to think of the Portuguese along the same lines. A nu-footballer that was bursting with technical dexterity but probably not your first choice for the proverbial 'wet Tuesday night in Stoke'.
And it stayed that way for a few years. Nani was clearly brilliant, but in his own way, and often on a different wavelength to his team-mates. They didn't know when to expect the ball; when he was going to pass or shoot. Sometimes the Portugal star seemed in his own world.
There were always great moments, and his confidence on the ball was rarely in question. But his was a career that was drifting towards the wilderness in January 2010.
Then he produced an amazing solo goal against Arsenal. Minutes after that, he played a pass of perfect timing into Wayne Rooney's path, assisting one of the all-time great United counter-attacking goals. Rooney pointedly paid tribute to Nani's maturity during the subsequent celebration.
It seemed the catalyst for his entire rebirth. Mick Phelan spoke in public about how
“the penny may have dropped”.
And it had. Nani was absolutely sublime the following season, 2010/11, ending it as United's Players' Player of the Year and making the PFA's Premier League Team of the Year.
Why Nani was a cult hero at UnitedVideo
He'd emerged out of Ronaldo's shadow. He'd found his own way to endear himself to the United fans who, at one time, seemed to be infuriated at the way Nani's capricious contributions contrasted with Antonio Valencia's sturdy, no-nonsense performances on the opposite flank.
But Nani, on form, was pure Manchester United; purely in the spirit of Manchester. He had his own skill, unlike anyone else's, and was brave enough to wield it.
Fans would still groan when he would slow the game down, draw his opponent in, and then beat them two, three, four times before delivering a cross.
Ronaldo had flown at opponents like Giggs and Kanchelskis, using his skills merely to intimidate and frighten defenders, before passing them in a blur of pace and power. Antonio Valencia would go past them on the outside or simply pass it to someone else. Every few years, he'd use his left foot and send shockwaves around the stadium, but those incidences were as rare as leap years.
But Nani was small, wiry and preferred to tease and deceive, employing a bewitching array of feints in an infinite number of permutations.
The slow, teasing manner in which he would nudge the ball forward would force defenders to lunge at him, but then he'd shift the ball virtuosically onto the other foot and change direction.
When he was unveiled at Valencia a few years back, they arranged a capoeira demonstration.
Capoeira is a tradition that was developed by African slaves in Brazil – an intriguing hybrid of dance, martial arts and sport – that Nani has often spoken about enthusiastically. The aim is not to hurt your opponent, but to expose the vulnerability, using only the necessary energy and skill.
I always wondered if his interest in that gave away a secret insight into his football style.
That style was often effective, but not always easy for crowds in England to understand, where wingers are traditionally expected to run like the clappers and 'get it in the mixer'. Of course, tastes in this country have become more sophisticated during the last 10 years. You can now file inverted wingers and 'false' strikers alongside Bovril and mushy peas, as things you're likely to see at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon.
And, pleasingly, it feels like Nani is finally beginning to get his due. His goal compilations often do the rounds on social media and get a great reaction. Watch them, and you can instantly see what an unusual, confident and remarkable stylist he was.
But, back in the day, it was sometimes hard to remember that amid the inconsistencies.
Ultimately, he had a singular kind of flair and did things his own way, irrespective of what the rest of the world thought. And if those aren't the ingredients that make a Manchester United player, what is?
The opinions in this story are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Manchester United Football Club.
Keep an eye out for more from Nani's UTD Podcast over the weekend, ahead of the episode's release on Monday.