Spot the winger. It has been the easiest game in Portuguese football over the past couple of decades and they almost always tend to have rolled off the Sporting Clube de Portugal academy production line – Luís Figo, Simão, Ricardo Quaresma, Cristiano Ronaldo and the rest.
A nation starved of top-quality centre-forwards has become handcuffed to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Why would a kid want to be the next Hélder Postiga when he could mould his game on Ronaldo or Figo?
So it is extraordinary that Fernando Santos has steered Portugal to Sunday’s Euro 2016 final in Saint-Denis using a formation of wingless wonder. Not that there is a paucity of wingers in the squad. Six of the group have spent a sizeable part of their careers playing out wide. Even Raphaël Guerreiro, the young left-back born and raised in France and newly signed by Borussia Dortmund, spent half of last season playing wide on the left for Lorient.
Hoping that one of those wingers might eventually fill the void in the centre is not a new sentiment, but nobody expected it would be Nani. While Ronaldo’s changing role has attracted much of the attention during the tournament, it has been his former Manchester United team-mate and fellow Sporting product who has been the real spark in Portugal’s attack.
Santos’s move away from the traditional 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2 aims to conserve Ronaldo’s energy by bringing the game to him, rather than requiring the Real Madrid galactico to come and get it. It also needs the second striker to move close to him in support. Nani has followed those instructions to the letter. That the last two of his three goals in the tournament have been laid on by Ronaldo is a firm nod to exactly how well he has clicked in his unlikely partnership with the captain.
There has always been the feeling that a little more might be dragged from Nani’s talents – he was even briefly tried out as a No10 by Paulo Bento during the preparations for Euro 2012 – but finally, at 29, it seems as if he might have found his place having moved inside. With his pace, smart runs and decisive thrust, he looks several times removed from the player who had driven onlookers back home to distraction, constantly showing flashes of brilliance but then making poor choices with the ball.
The sublime backheel to help create Renato Sanches’s equaliser in the quarter-final against Poland was perhaps an even better indication of an intuitive talent well served by his new role than even his goals have been. This is a player who, absolved from the responsibility of thinking too hard about the game, is having a real second wind.
It is something that Nani has been quick to acknowledge. “I’m in one of the best moments of my career,” he said after the Poland game, smiling, “and I’m hoping to carry on in this way so we can achieve our ambitions.”
If those ambitions, now a game away from being realised, would have been dismissed as a fantasy pre-tournament, the idea of Nani being a prominent figure in any success seemed equally fanciful less than two years ago. One of the first (and most perplexing) decisions of David Moyes’s reign at Old Trafford had been to award Nani a lucrative new five-year deal after a season when he started seven times in the Premier League. It looked like an even worse call when he made seven league starts in 2013-14 and – stuck with an expensive, apparently bust flush that they could not move on – United were forced to loan him back to Sporting and cover all of his wages simply to begin his regeneration towards being of some sort of value.
It worked, but it was not easy. On his second debut for Sporting, at home to Arouca, in August 2014, Nani was so eager to please that when Marco Silva’s side were awarded a penalty, he took the responsibility – and the ball – from the regular taker Adrien Silva. He missed.
In February 2015, after scoring a stunning long-range effort against Gil Vicente, Nani broke down in tears. “I thought about all I’ve been through,” he said, somewhat enigmatically. “My things that nobody knows about.”
He ended the season vindicated, guiding Sporting back to the Champions League and winning the Taça de Portugal. He has since continued to flourish at Fenerbahce, before securing a move to Valencia this week. At Mestalla, he will be expected to embrace a leadership role for the club’s promising younger players, including his compatriots João Cancelo and Rúben Vezo. “I always admired him, ever since I was little,” said Vezo this week. Nani’s explosiveness on the pitch often obscures that he is a measured, mature presence off it.
That has come across throughout this tournament, with Nani always polite and available in Portuguese, English and (already) Spanish. He has been sanguine about his change in fortunes, too. “I work hard for the team, whether I’m playing or not,” he said after his man-of-the-match display in the opener with Iceland. “Now I’m playing centre-forward, because the coach has put his trust in me and it’s going well.”
He spoke knowing full well that had Quaresma not strained a thigh muscle leading up to that opener, then he would have started alongside Ronaldo in Nani’s stead. Quaresma’s sparkling form in the pre-tournament friendlies had made him a shoo-in but his role has now been restricted to that of an impact substitute.
Nani and the equally resurgent Quaresma (now 32) continue to fascinate. Luís Fernández, part of France’s midfield of Michel Platini, Jean Tigana, Alain Giresse and Bernard Genghini that broke Portuguese hearts in the 1984 semi-final on their way to winning the last European Championship here, spoke of the pair having the talent to match Ronaldo, their illustrious former stablemate. “There are some players,” he told O Jogo, “like Nani or Quaresma, who had the same potential as Cristiano when they left Portugal but, after, lost themselves. Nani and Quaresma are a mystery.”
A mystery, it seems, that Santos has figured out. They will feel, as will Ronaldo if Portugal bring the trophy home, that it’s been worth the wait.
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