Manchester United supporters never came up with a catchy chant to celebrate the powerful long-distance shooting and intermittently successful step-overs of Portuguese international Luis Nani. But that didn’t stop fans from yelling Nani’s name. A few seasons ago, one exasperated season-ticket holder, seated close enough to the television microphones that his cheering occasionally interrupted live broadcasts, would shout “Come on, Nani, lad!” when the winger conceded possession.
United fans spent most of Nani’s Old Trafford career exhorting him to improve – to score important goals, to commit fewer fouls, to be more like Cristiano Ronaldo. After signing in 2007, Nani produced enough highlights to fill an average-length YouTube montage – the showboating against Arsenal, the back-flip celebrations, the Champions League penalty conversion – without ever establishing himself as the dominant attacking force Sir Alex Ferguson had thought he would become. Yesterday Nani, who spent last season on loan at Sporting Lisbon, left United for Turkish club Fenerbahce. No one seems to care that much.
That doesn’t mean Nani failed at Old Trafford. He just never quite managed to escape Ronaldo’s considerable shadow. Ronaldo left United in 2009, two years after Nani signed, but he remains a popular figure at the club: Fans sing his name during frustrating 0-0 games, as if hoping to summon their old hero from the recesses of the increasingly distant past. There are plenty of obvious similarities between Nani and Ronaldo. They are both Portuguese wingers. They both started their club careers at Sporting before attracting Ferguson’s attention. And they have both faced frequent criticism for selfish play.
Indeed, Nani’s relationship to his Portuguese international teammate amounts to a case study in the anxiety of influence. By his own admission, the pressure to match Ronaldo’s achievements weighed on Nani during his seven years in the Premier League. “I know a lot of people compare me with Cristiano, but I don’t want that, because I’m different,” Nani told The Telegraph in 2009. “I have my own skills, my own style of shooting. I want to hear people speaking about Nani, not saying things like ‘Look, he does that like Cristiano.’”
Nevertheless, Ronaldo’s legacy will almost certainly shape the way fans remember Nani. It’s difficult to evaluate Nani’s record, his not-that-terrible statistics and his impressive trophy haul, without dwelling on the unfulfilled, completely unfair expectation that he would follow Ronaldo into the pantheon of great Manchester United wingers.
Nani is an unfortunate casualty of a sports culture obsessed with succession. All it takes for a young, talented player to be christened “the next Messi” is a few eye-catching goals and some clever video editing. The media does the rest of the work, assigning undeserved titles to unproven players and manufacturing enthusiasm that quickly fades into disappointment. Nani will probably go down in Manchester United history as “just a shit Cristiano.” But that’s only because, from the moment he joined the team, fans insisted on holding him to an impossibly high standard.