Welcome, Luis Carlos Almeida da Cunha, better known as Nani, to the A-Leagues. Enjoy the sugar. Make sure you brush your teeth.
After months of speculation, the Portugal international was officially announced as the newest addition to the A-League Men by Melbourne Victory on Tuesday, signing a deal that will keep him at AAMI Park until the end of the 2023-24 campaign.
A Champions League and four-time Premier League winner at Manchester United, as well as a European Championship winner with A Selecao, Nani instantly becomes one of the highest-profile figures to ever grace the Australian top-flight, ticking all the boxes when it comes to the name recognition that you want from a marquee. Arguably, he surpasses Keisuke Honda and Harry Kewell as the biggest signing in Victory’s history.
And if all goes right, his new fans won’t have to wait long to see him in action. Unlike Honda, whose first game in what became a somewhat underwhelming tenure was a behind-closed-doors preseason friendly against Wellington Phoenix, the hope is that Nani will be able to at least play a role — albeit a limited one given that he only arrived in Melbourne on Monday — in his new side’s blockbuster friendly against his former employers this Friday at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. From there, proper integration with his new teammates can commence before an Australia Cup meeting with Western United on Aug. 3 and the commencement of the new ALM season on the weekend of Oct. 7.
Given that the vast majority of tickets for the game are already understood to have been sold — the Man United brand tends to sell itself these days — a commercial need for Nani to feature on Friday is low. Yet, given the circumstances, it would be superbly apt for him to debut against his former employers. Much like that fact that an elite European club playing an exhibition fixture at a far-flung, cavernous cricketing stadium is all about commercial considerations rather than preseason preparation, there is much more involved in Nani’s arrival in Australia than just footballing considerations.
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By adding Nani to their books over the next two seasons, Victory are not just boosting their attacking stocks. It is a deal that represents an investment in the long nights Australian fans spent on the couch watching him run out at Old Trafford alongside Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo, the countless hours that have been spent controlling his virtual avatar during games of FIFA, or the ecstasy (or agony) of watching him take his penalty in the 2008 Champions League final. It’s for the attention that mainstream news editors, loath to devote any semblance of their increasingly shrinking resources to football, will be willing to assign to a player with his profile.
Melbourne Victory and league administrators the Australian Professional Leagues (APL), who are supporting the deal, are seeking to harness not just a player but the idea of Nani; the myth that inevitably builds up around any footballer that achieves the kind of success that he has in his career. And nostalgia does tend to work in today’s market — just ask Kate Bush’s bank account.
It’s a key part of the strategy hatched by the APL — who took over the running of the A-Leagues ahead of the 2021-22 season — to arrest their flagging fortunes after a challenging campaign; CEO Danny Townsend revealed in May that a list of 35 “world-class” potential additions to the league had been drawn up. This tactic of star-chasing has frequently been derided as a sugar hit that is meaningless without actual foundations to underpin — which it absolutely is — but the APL has come to the determination that they’re at risk of falling into a hypoglycemic coma otherwise. A casual footballing observer probably could n’t pick reigning Johnny Warren Medalist Jake Brimmer out of a line-up, but at the very least he might be intrigued by the prospect of getting a chance to see a genuine former Premier League star.
That is why Nani isn’t likely to be the only global marquee to land in Australia, with the league and Macarthur FC also in active pursuit of Spain legend Cesc Fabregas to play under another former Man United star in Dwight Yorke, who was awarded the Bulls’ manager role despite never actually coaching a competitive fixture. Further, ESPN understands that efforts are underway to ensure that the playing additions, amongst other high-profile promotions, don’t end there.
“Marquee players are an important part of our accelerated growth strategy,” Townsend told ESPN. “And this commitment by APL and Melbourne Victory is a statement of intent as we seek to deliver the best on and off-field experience to engage A-Leagues fans.”
For the marquees involved, arriving in these circumstances with it a necessary adjustment far beyond the practicalities of football in Australian conditions — itself a not insignificant task. It requires an acknowledgment of their new place in the footballing world, an admission that their time at the top, taking the field with some of the biggest and most historic clubs in search of major European silverware, is at an end. Now, they are just as much an attraction as an athlete: the tickets sold and the eyeballs tuned in at home are just as big a marker of success as any trophies they are able to deliver. It’s why Townsend has spoken of the need for players arriving as part of the new marquee push to buy into the vision of the leagues and their role in promoting it, and why Victory expect Nani to pull his weight off the field as well as on it .
Of course, rusted-on fans will likely be largely unmoved by these moves or any marquee. That’s not why they love their club or engage with the league. They’d rather watch a Besart Berisha or a Milos Ninkovic-esque addition or a young player like Garang Kuol or Nestory Irankunda. Yet with this cohort of supporter, worn away by year’s worth of attrition and frustration, it appears the determination has been made that there simply aren’t enough of them to maintain the league as it is.
Victory coach Tony Popovic, too, will be hoping to have secured more than just a walking billboard to aid his efforts to improve on his side’s semifinal exit in 2021-22. And the sugar that comes with the move will no doubt quickly dissipate if Nani proves unable to contribute on the field; Daniel Sturridge’s first game for Perth Glory served to attract 18,000 fans at HBF Park, after all, but subsequent injuries and COVID chaos led to his time in Australia turning into a very expensive failure.
Nani, 35, spent last season with Italian side Venezia, unable to help them avoid the drop to Serie B after signing in January. Now, the level of competition in the Italian top-flight is significantly greater than the one he will experience in Australia but his time with the Venetians wasn’t exactly the most fruitful of tenures: producing just a single assist across 283 minutes that were derived from just three starts and seven appearances off the bench. Admittedly, perhaps this is too small and unrepresentative a sample size; his time in Major League Soccer with Orlando City, a competition much more comparable to ALM, bore greater fruit with 31 goals and 18 assists across 88 games from 2019 to 2021.
But unable to match the wage packets of the MLS or cashed-up Middle Eastern leagues, these are the types of gambles the APL are taking with the marquees it can find. If it truly wants a player that scores highly on the Name Recognition Index™ and can provide that sugar rush, there will almost inevitably be concerns that have scared off more wealthy suitors.
Will this strategy bear fruit? Can signing marquees reverse the A-Leagues’ fortunes this season? Not without the unsexy foundational work is also made with a long term view in mind. Too much sugar is bad for you. But the APL’s hope is that it can help keep up the entertainment and build the hype while the much-needed long-term changes are made.
A spoonful of sugar, after all, helps the medicine go down.