NANI: PORTUGAL'S NEW TEEN SENSATION
The city of Lisbon has produced more than its share of footballing gems over the years, and now Luis Carlos Almeida da Cunha, or Nani, is the latest pearl unearthed at the Sporting Lisbon academy. After the likes of Luis Figo, Ricardo Sa Pinto, Hugo Viana and Cristiano Ronaldo, the scouts from Europe's top clubs are now flocking to watch Nani bamboozle Portuguese defences.
Scarcely two years ago, Sporting played a friendly against Manchester United in which another young Lisboan burst into the international consciousness by defeating the English giants almost single-handedly. The following day, Sir Alex Ferguson signed his side's tormentor, Cristiano Ronaldo.
Today, Ronaldo is Nani's number one fan and dreams of his compatriot joining him in the Premier League. "I would love Nani to come and play in Manchester with me," he declared during the national team's get-together for their match against Poland. And the English club's directors appear to feel the same way, with "Sir Alex" and his assistant Carlos Queiroz reportedly trying to snap up the young star last summer. In the end, Filipe Soares Franco, chairman of the Portuguese club, managed to hold onto his man and spare his supporters a repeat of the Ronaldo episode after stipulating: "Nani is not for sale, not today and not in the winter transfer window. For the time being, we're not interested in any transaction."
As for the player himself, he feels content at Sporting and is loathe to fly the nest too soon. "If I leave Sporting, it will only be for a big club. I'm young and very ambitious," he proclaims when asked to comment on the countless approaches. However, if he continues to string together the kind of top-notch performances he has been producing for over a year now, it is difficult to see how the Lisbon club's directors will be able to resist the overtures of the major European powerhouses. With the player's contract expiring in June 2008, they will want to capitalise on their prize asset ahead of that date rather than see him depart on a free transfer.
At the home game with Uniao Leiria on 2 October, a look around the stands of the Jose Alvalade Stadium offered an insight into the scale of 'Nani-mania'. What with representatives of Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Inter Milan and AC Milan, the talent scouts almost outnumbered the fans!
Head boy in a class of kids
Those sent to observe the player did not travel in vain either, as the object of their attention set about showcasing the full panoply of his abilities. Courtesy of numerous delightful passes, bursts and bewildering close control, the right-sided midfielder was the chief architect of the Lions' 2-0 win, capping his virtuoso performance with his side's first goal.
The fact that only Sporting have kept up with pacesetters and reigning champions FC Porto at the top of the Portuguese championship can be largely attributed to the team's young cubs. Thrown in at the deep end by coach Paulo Bento last season, Nani (19), Joao Moutinho (20), Miguel Veloso (20) and Yannick Djalo (20) have helped lift the Lisbon outfit up to second place in the league. With 29 appearances under his belt and a tally of four goals last season, Nani could scarcely have dreamt of making a better start to his first year in the domestic top flight.
Born in the Lisbon suburb of Amadora, where he used to indulge in kickabouts with Manuel Fernandes, now of Portsmouth, Nani started his career with Real Sport Clube de Massama before joining Sporting's youth academy. His natural technique and vision had always marked him out as a talented midfielder, but his cool head, strength and eye for goal quickly elevated him to prodigy status. Courtesy of these qualities, he was able to power through the ranks to make his Superliga debut at the age of just 18.
First cap yields first goal
His performances in the championship soon earned the player a call-up to Portugal's U-21 side for what would turn out to be a disappointing UEFA European Championship campaign on home soil (they finished bottom of their group). Last August, Nani was expecting to be selected again for the 2007 qualifying competition, but this time around, the call came not from Jose Couceiro, the coach of the Esperanças (U-21s), but from senior team supremo Luiz Felipe Scolari.
Once the legendary Luis Figo announced his retirement, the race to take over his right-wing berth was on. And so it was that, on 2 September, Nani made his first appearance for the full national team, semi-finalists at the last FIFA World Cup™, in a friendly against Denmark. One hour later, he had scored his first international goal and, though the Iberians ended up losing the game 4-2, their new attacking midfielder had announced his international arrival in style.
A few weeks later, his emergence was confirmed in another prestigious setting when Sporting, inspired by a livewire Nani, beat Inter Milan 1-0 in their UEFA Champions League opener. On matchday 2, he produced more of the same, grabbing the equalizer as the Lisboans returned from Spartak Moscow with a precious point (1-1).
By the time Sporting's third Group B match against Bayern Munich had come around, Nani had been widely earmarked as the Portuguese side's danger man. And though Sporting may have gone down 1-0 on the night, the ranks of Nani's admirers were swelled by the addition of another huge name in European football, Felix Magath. Speaking after the game, the Bayern coach said of the youngster: "He's one of the most gifted young players in Europe, and what's more, he's stronger than I thought he was."
With talent to spare and Luis Figo's place in the Portuguese national team, Nani is unquestionably one of the rising stars of European football.