If you type "Nani work ethic" into Google, the top result is a 2010 story on an inactive Manchester United blog with the headline: "Nani’s trickery and Berbatov’s work ethic inspires United to crucial win." That's right. Dimitar Berbatov, who has never done anything at full speed, is the one whose work ethic is praised. The next two results are social media posts complaining about Nani's lack of work ethic. The next two are about two people named Nani who don't play soccer. Likewise, if you type in "Nani hard work" the top result is 2011 story from the Daily Mail about Nani, who was in the midst of a career year, talking about the hard work he put into learning how to shoot with both feet.
I have no idea what Nani's work ethic is like. I've never seen any of Manchester United's or Portugal's training sessions and I certainly don't know about stuff that goes on behind closed doors. But it's telling that we see almost no stories where other people praise Nani for training hard, demanding extra work, being the first person to arrive at practice, etc. Those stories were a dime a dozen for Cristiano Ronaldo, and you didn't have to search very long to find stories full of quotes from teammates, coaches, and even rival praising Ronaldo for his dedication.
For Nani, however, it's always been about his natural talent and ability. Talent only takes you so far, and it's safe to say that Nani's natural skills haven't been enough. His uneven seven year tenure at Old Trafford seemingly came to an end on Wednesday, when the team officially signed Argentine defender Marcos Rojo in a £16 million deal from Sporting Lisbon and sent Nani back to the club from which he came on a one-year, fully subsidized loan.
From Day One, Nani was an enigmatic, frustrating figure. When I was live-blogging matches for Soccerlens, there were three standard phrases I used in some form when Nani was playing: "Nani shoots the ball into the cheap seats and acts like he can't believe it didn't go in," "down goes Nani" and "what a great move from Nani!" No player could be so confounding, and yet so tantalizing. After leaving for Real Madrid, Ronaldo even said that he expected Nani to be able to fill the void, saying: "There is a lot more to come from him and I am sure that in a few years he will be among the best players in the world." Nani did have a fantastic 2010-11 season where he scored 10 goals and notched 14 assists in all competitions en route to being named Man Utd's "Players' Player of the Year."
He soon regressed and has been linked with moves away from the club for the last three years. Both Sir Alex Ferguson and David Moyes gave him lifelines because they knew how good he could be. "He is one of the best match-winners in the game and I am including the whole of Europe in that," said Ferguson in 2013, when it first looked like Nani might get shipped out of town. "He is capable of scoring the most incredible goals."
Ultimately, he never came close to being a consistently great player at Old Trafford - let alone a regular starter. Maybe it was the stress of having to live up to Cristiano Ronaldo. Maybe he didn't work hard enough. Maybe he just wasn't good enough.
Nah, it wasn't because he wasn't good enough. Not when he could do this:
Oh wait, wrong video. But this cracked me up. I've watched it 20 times in one sitting- the first 10 or so times was because I had no idea what this kid was saying.
For his part, Nani seems happy with the move and thankful for the change of scenery, but the fact remains that this is a huge and shocking fall for a player that many thought could be one of the best in the world. If he ever wants to reach the level he thinks he deserves, then he'll have to work harder than he's ever worked before. Unfortunately, that might not be saying much.
UPDATE (07/04/15): Nani has agreed to join Fenerbahçe in a proposed £4.5 mil deal pending a physical. He leaves with a pretty full trophy cabinet, but was ultimately a disappointment for United. I blame William.