Luis Nani’s tortuous rise to prominence at Manchester United says a lot about English football fans and their attitude to two things: flair and mental fragility. “It is amazing when you talk to the players they all want him to play.” said Sir Alex Ferguson recently of Nani, “They all think he is fantastic. We are getting consistency from him now. We have a really good player.”
Gary Neville buttressed these comments by exclaiming that Nani is a flair player and, like all flair players, relies heavily on confidence. Fergie used to repetitively laud Ronaldo’s courage when he was at Manchester United, which was significant because he knew that for players who rely on theatricality as a weapon and a means of entertainment, the pitch can be a lonely place when it all goes wrong; especially if you’re foreign.
Ronaldo provoked ire in this country. When he arrived on these shores as a young, sinewy teenager, he was derided as a show pony. As if having olive skin and oily looking hair wasn’t enough in Britain to raise the hackles of the blanched, beer bellied and bigoted football fans underpinning a core element of his jury, Ronaldo was also supremely gifted and bumptiously strutted about like a fledgling Eric Cantona fused with the narcissism of David Ginola. In fact, our country’s reaction to Ronaldo said a lot about the prejudices at the heart of our culture – many xenophobic pundits were appalled at his showmanship, instead idolising the more traditional meat and drink midfielders in the mould of Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira.
Remember George Boateng’s claim that Ronaldo’s coruscations were likely to get him hurt? It made me think of the Ben Franklin quote “Hide not your talents, they for use were made, what’s a sundial in the shade?”
I, for one, used to love watching Ronaldo in those days; he had not put on the muscle he has now and used to pass players the way Lionel Messi does – only his poor decision making belied his callowness. But everybody was so harsh on him when it went wrong, and in relative terms, he developed quickly – quicker than Nani anyhow.
It could be said that Fergie’s handling of Nani harmed his confidence, likewise Benitez with Ryan Babel, but you cannot write off a player who has the touch, skill, balance, technique, two-footedness, pace and power that Nani has, purely because, by the age of 22 he has not fully become a fixture in the side.
The trouble is, in our society still, mental fragility is sniffed at and not taken on and combated as a discipline to be improved, much like you improve the shape of your body and the size of your muscles in the gym. It is a truism that confidence is the most important thing in football, and if you don’t feel it from your teammates, your manager, and thousands of fans watching you, then you are going to struggle no matter how gifted. Nani illustrates this point perfectly.
Late developers usually have better careers than early ones. Look at Thierry Henry, does anyone remember his early forays on the left wing for Arsenal? The step-overs and pirouettes? Jimmy Greaves will, as he idiotically claimed Henry would never make it as a player in England. Jimmy was guilty of the prejudice’s of his generation – his attitudes were a microcosm of those felt by many towards foreigners who played with élan; they were ‘fancy-dan’s’ lacking the physical and mental strength to succeed.
Many young talented players who come to these shores have the requisite skill and technical ability, but not the physique and mental ability to succeed. You cannot get this overnight. In the premiership, the stakes are so high that poor performances are usually followed by being axed from the side. Look at what has happened to Robinho.
That’s what Jose Mourinho meant a couple of years ago when he said that Arsene Wenger was in a unique position at Arsenal; the fact that Wenger can go trophy less and afford to keep playing youngsters who don’t necessarily perform consistently gives him a significant edge in the development of them. But it’s still not easy.
Wayne Rooney, is perhaps a good example of someone who came into the game early and has performed consistently, but the difference with Rooney is he was blessed with an exceptional physique suited to the rigors of the premiership. And in any case, mentally, he has had to mature and improve his game – and it has been a gradual process, not a sudden one. Only this season are we seeing him reach his potential. Yes Ronaldo leaving may have helped, but it’s more to do with him understanding finally that he has a responsibility to score goals, and not to tire himself out running all over the pitch, just as much, or more given his position in the team, as he has to help the team. His priorities have shifted.
The fact Nani is Portuguese has given the media an easy line since Ronaldo left, but Valencia was bought to plug the gap; Nani was already at the club. Now that he’s coming good, the thousands of football fans who will enjoy his exploits will be delighted he’s still plying his trade in the EPL, but if many had the power a month or so ago, he probably wouldn’t be here. The lesson is one that Arsene Wenger, a man who knows a thing or two about developing footballers, mentions often, just be patient with young players, especially those who come from abroad and struggle to settle, and especially the ones with natural flair and a penchant for showmanship. It’s worth it.