Comment: Man United fans reminded of the cost of Ed Woodward's dithering as Sanches outshines Ronaldo again
Next week Manchester United will unveil Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a world star who will send a frisson of excitement through Old Trafford.
However, as so often in major tournaments, Ibrahimovic was almost an irrelevance at the European Championship, who departed long before Euro 2016 became serious. He will turn 35 when United’s season is six weeks’ old.
The teenager Manchester United should have signed is still centre stage. In the very early hours of Friday morning, just after Portugal had fought their way through to an improbable semi-final appearance, the 18-year-old Renato Sanches was on the podium in the Stade Velodrome’s press room, accepting his second successive man-of-the-match award.
United had toyed with bringing Sanches to Old Trafford. His agent was Jorge Mendes, whose deals with Manchester United have earned him a considerable part of his vast fortune. Mendes also represents Jose Mourinho, who by mid-May knew he would be taking over from Louis van Gaal.
Sanches was a risk. He had only made his first start for Benfica in November but such was his impact as a box-to-box midfielder that they won 14 of 16 matches with him in the side. Having paid the little Lisbon amateur club, Aguias Musgueira, £600 and 25 footballs for him when he was 11, Benfica decided very quickly to protect their investment. He signed a five-year contract which contained a £36m buy-out clause.
Benfica knew Sanches was being watched, not just by Manchester United but by the rest of the usual suspects whenever a stunning young talent breaks through. Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich were said to be interested. However, it was Bayern who moved first, just as Benfica had sealed the Portuguese championship.
The fee was £28m, the third highest ever paid for a teenager behind the deals Manchester United agreed for Anthony Martial and Luke Shaw. Had Benfica waited until after the European Championship, Bayern might have matched the £36m United paid Monaco for Martial. But the fear at the Estadio da Luz was that Sanches would not make Fernando Santos’s squad for Euro 2016 and his value would dip.
In the round of 16, Sanches helped snatch the game from a far better Croatia side. After Ivan Perisic had struck the post in what seemed likely to be the last attack of a stultifying match, the teenager took the ball and pounded forward. It was his pass to Luis Nani that set up an improbable winner.
Portugal have now reached four European Championship semi-finals in their last five tournaments and this is perhaps their least impressive progress – they have yet to win a game inside 90 minutes. There are, however, echoes of 1984, when Portugal drew two of their three group games and then produced one of the great matches of the tournament, going down 3-2 to France in the semi-final in Marseilles.
Sanches was confident enough to address the criticism of Portugal’s play after the shoot-out in which he had been the second penalty-taker after Cristiano Ronaldo and driven his spot-kick coolly home.
“I did what I always do,” he said. “I just picked one side and stuck it in. I was very cool and collected,” he said. “People criticise us because Portugal have not won a game in normal time but we don’t care because we have reached the semi-finals. People call us lucky but it takes a lot of hard work to be this lucky – and we have been working very hard.”
Like Ronaldo and Nani, Sanches is a product of Portugal’s Atlantic islands. He was born in Lisbon of parents from Sao Tome and the Cape Verde Islands. Musgueira, where he grew up is one of Lisbon’s harshest suburbs. The shacks in the north of the city are known as barracas (literally tents). The clearance of them began in 2001 when he was four. It has not been completed.
The one advantage of the barracas was that they were near the local sports club, Aguias de Musgueira - The Eagles of Musgueira. He would have been about six when he first went and he turned up wearing braids in his hair.
The club president, Antonio Quadros, said: “Our club plays a very important role in the middle of the barracas because it gives young people the possibility to make something of themselves.
“We called Sanches our ‘Black Pearl’ and when he was still in primary school he was playing against kids from the secondary schools. Sometimes, he would grow impatient but I kept telling him to keep calm and he would achieve his dreams. His dreams were first to play for Aguias, then Benfica and then the national team.
“I know we sold him for very little. He was 11 not nine as Benfica say. But watching him play now is worth all the money in the world. And we never did get those footballs.”
(© Independent News Service)
Independent News Service