For a couple of months, no more, the fee seemed steep. A few weeks before the start of the last European Championship, in 2016, Bayern Munich agreed to a deal with Benfica to sign the latest prodigy from the Portuguese team’s apparently never-ending production line: an 18-year-old midfielder with only nine months of senior experience on his résumé.
If it was something of a coup for Bayern — Manchester United and several other members of Europe’s elite had been interested, too — it was a resounding success for Benfica.
Bayern, the perennial German champion, was committed to paying a basic fee of $41 million, with $53 million more due if certain performance targets were met. All told, it amounted to the most valuable sale of a player in Portuguese history, which was not bad, given that the teenager, Renato Sanches, had started the season on the club’s reserve team.
After just a few weeks, and Bayern seemed to have pulled off a heist. Sanches went supernova at Euro 2016 that summer: If Cristiano Ronaldo was the undisputed star of Portugal’s championship-winning campaign, the teenager ran him close.
Sanches created the goal that helped Portugal squeeze past Croatia in the last 16, scored in the quarterfinal against Poland and then demanded not only to take a penalty in the subsequent shootout, but to go second. He would happily have stepped up first, but that spot had already been reserved by Ronaldo.
Sanches was named man of the match for his performance that day — handpicked by Claude Makélélé, no mean midfielder himself — and before the final, against the host nation, France, he was honored as the best young player of the tournament. A few months later, he would be named the most promising player under age 21 in Europe.
The agreement with Bayern held hints of that promise. One of the clauses dictated that the German team would have to pay a few million more if Sanches was crowned world player of the year before the end of his initial contract, in 2021. Before the tournament, Bayern might well have regarded that as very much a theoretical contingency. By the end, it looked all too real.
That clause would have expired this summer. Bayern never had to honor it. Sanches made the last of his meager 53 appearances for the club almost two years ago, the light from his starburst long since faded. In the five years that have passed since Euro 2016, Sanches has lost his place in his team, lost his way, and finally lost himself. Only now is he beginning to find the road back.
Sanches was one of the world’s most valuable teenagers after Euro 2016.Credit…Bartlomiej Zborowski/European Pressphoto Agency
In a Hurry
Renato Paiva, the coach of Benfica’s under-19 team at the time, had pinned the set-piece routines to the locker room wall and gone outside. A few minutes later, he returned, and found a group of players in conclave, with Sanches at their center. “I’d put down who was going to take free kicks short,” Paiva said. “Renato was telling them all: ‘Don’t bother with short ones; the way we score goals is to get the ball into the box.’”
Paiva slipped away, unnoticed. “I waited until after the warm-up,” he said. “I pulled him aside and asked him if he wanted to be a player or a manager. He said, ‘No, no, I want to be a player.’ So I told him to concentrate on that and leave the set-piece routines to me.”
Sanches was clearly a young man in a hurry. He had been promoted to Paiva’s under-19 team early, one of a handful of players — including Manchester City’s Rúben Dias — to be fast-tracked straight from the under-17s. “When he first joined us, he said to me that he was not here to watch, and he was here to play,” said Paiva, who said he replied: “You show that on the field, not in conversation.”
When Sanches did, another leap followed. He was 17 when he made his professional debut, for Benfica’s second-string team. Within a year, the first team called for him. “The transfer market was closed, and the first-team manager, Rui Vitória, needed an energetic midfielder,” Paiva said. “It was the sort of time where you have to experiment, so he took Renato and gave him a chance. That is soccer: It is about the moment.”
Though circumstance had fallen in his favor, nobody at Benfica doubted he was ready. “It was fast,” said Nuno Gomes, the director of Benfica’s youth academy at the time. “But if you had watched him play at all those levels, as I did, then you would not have been surprised.”
If anything, though, Sanches was just getting going. His first start for Benfica’s first team was on Nov. 25, 2015. Within six months, he had been selected as part of Portugal’s squad for the European Championship and sold to Bayern Munich for a king’s ransom.
That, Paiva said, had not necessarily been part of the plan. Benfica had been preparing a new contract, hoping to keep him with the club for a couple more years. As soon as Bayern’s offer came in, though, the equation changed. “It is very difficult, even for the biggest club in Portugal, to compete with those teams,” Gomes said. “The value of the offer, and also the wages being offered to the player, were too big to refuse.”
Even if Sanches’s departure came earlier than planned, Gomes, like everyone else with Benfica, assumed that his rapid trajectory would continue in Germany. “We thought he would perform well there,” he said. Paiva, though, harbored a few doubts. “He still had a lot to improve, especially tactically,” he said. “Economically, selling him was the only thing the club could have done. But was it the right time in terms of the development of the player? No.”
Watching the Rain
Sanches’s most memorable contribution to English soccer was not a flattering one. It came in a road game against Chelsea. Sanches, wearing the red alternative jersey of Swansea City, the team he had joined on loan in 2017, picked up the ball and glanced to his left, looking for a pass.
As he did so, the electronic advertising boards running around the perimeter of the field changed display, the red logo of an energy drink brand suddenly flashing. You can predict the punchline. Instead of passing to one of the two teammates equidistant from the logo, Sanches sent the ball to the advertising board itself. Somehow, the fact that he got the pass exactly right — it hit the logo, square and plum — added to the farce.
Sanches’s spell at Swansea has long been filed away as one of those curious, comic interludes that English soccer does so well. That he was there at all — only a year or so after he had emerged, fully formed, as European soccer’s next sensation — was strange enough. That he should have made so little impact made it only more baffling still.
“I think, if I’m honest, that he never really wanted to be here,” said Alan Curtis, a longstanding member of Swansea’s coaching staff, and now an honorary club president. “I think he was sent here.”
Sanches’s first season with Bayern was underwhelming, but hardly embarrassing. The club raised the idea of sending him out on loan, to allow him to get more regular game time, accelerating his development. “If he stays, no problem,” his coach at Bayern, Carlo Ancelotti, said. “If he goes, also no problem.” It was hardly a ringing endorsement.
Ancelotti’s former assistant, Paul Clement, was in charge at Swansea, and used his relationship to pitch South Wales as a possible destination. Sanches had moved to Wales on his own, though, and while Swansea’s staff and squad did their best to “look out for him,” he struggled to settle.
“I think he wanted, if he was in the Premier League, to be in London,” Curtis said. “This is a beautiful part of the world, with some amazing walks and some stunning beaches, but it’s quiet.
“We can control a lot of things, but we can’t turn Swansea into a teeming metropolis. No matter how much you want it to work, if a player is not happy, if there is something in the back of their mind, then it is hard to perform.” Clement — fired in December of that season, after a poor start — said it seemed to him as if Sanches had “the weight of the world on his shoulders.”
That, certainly, is how the player remembered it. “Everything went wrong,” he wrote in an article for The Players’ Tribune a couple of years later. “Just as I was adjusting to my new team, I got these weird injuries. I had never had injury trouble before, but all of a sudden I was out for months, sitting alone in an apartment in Swansea, watching it rain all day.”
He returned to Bayern — where he was promised a fresh start under Ancelotti’s eventual replacement, Niko Kovac — but he remained a peripheral figure. “This is not how any of this was supposed to go,” Sanches wrote at the time.
He grew frustrated, the impatience that had once supercharged his rise now speeding his downfall. At the start of the 2019-20 season, he either forgot or refused to do a warm-down session after Bayern’s first game of the campaign. He had appeared, briefly, as a late substitute. He remembered, though, to give a television interview suggesting he wanted to play more regularly, or leave.
The Way Back
Paiva saw the move and recognized it instantly. He was watching Portugal’s opening game of Euro 2020 — the 3-0 win against Hungary this week — from Ecuador, where he is coaching Independiente del Valle, but it transported him back to Benfica’s youth academy.
A few minutes after his introduction as a substitute, Sanches picked the ball up on the right flank and darted past one opponent. He cut inside, and squared up to two more. He barreled straight past both of them through sheer force of will and continued his run. He looked up and slipped a pass into Rafa Silva, who drew a foul, won a penalty and secured the victory.
“That was pure Renato,” Paiva said. “It showed everything about him: his ability, his power, his determination, his will to win. It is what he did at every level when he was younger. He was on the field for 10 minutes, but he used it like it was 100.”
Even after all he has been through, those that know him well are sure that the ability that marked him out for greatness is still there. It was never an illusion. It had not disappeared. It was just lying dormant.
Sanches, over these last two years, has started to right his course. It began with a move to Lille, only a few days after that disruptive interview while still at Bayern. He was not cheap — he was, at the time, the most expensive player in the club’s history — and his impact was not immediate.
“You arrive at Lille, having not played for several seasons,” the club’s manager, Christophe Galtier, said a few months after his arrival. “You might ask yourself if you have made the right choice, or have the required level. He needed reassuring.” Galtier has advised him to “relax” a little, to be less impatient.
The change of environment has worked. Sanches, who has played most often on the right of midfield, emerged as one of the driving forces behind Lille’s unexpected French title. Europe’s big clubs, including Liverpool and Manchester United, are said to be circling once again.
He is back on the Portugal squad, too, back in the European Championship, back to where he was before, the world at his feet. “I feel much better than in 2016,” Sanches said last month. “I feel more capable, more experienced. I feel prepared to play more and more.”
He has come full circle. Now, at last, he is ready to start his journey again.