United target teenage market in bid to unearth new Ronaldo
Cristiano Ronaldo was not always the type to wander among the pre-match hubbub, as he did in Manchester on Tuesday, with a pair of chunky gold earphones on his head, like one of those batty Renaissance princes given to wearing their ceremonial crowns around the palace. Once, Ronaldo was just a nervous teenage footballer, with acne, braces on his teeth and a loud jumper, trying not to say the wrong thing at his introductory Manchester United press conference.
He failed in that regard, almost 13 years ago, when his understandable innocence of English football's feuds meant that he did not know that identifying Thierry Henry as his favourite player at the height of the millennial United-Arsenal rivalry was a delicious faux-pas. Sitting next to him in a lounge at Old Trafford, Alex Ferguson hammed up his dismay and Ronaldo looked around haplessly like the gauche exchange student who has just flooded the family bathroom.
He was just a kid then, in 2003, albeit the most expensive teenager in British football at what now seems the ludicrously low price of £12.25m. But Ronaldo's success set the template for what might be achieved by a club with good contacts in European leagues and the willingness to back a hunch with big money in the teenage market.
United might well return to Portugal again this summer for another teenager, 18-year-old Renato Sanches, of Benfica, already a two-cap international and reckoned by shrewd observers to be the best teenage talent the country has produced since Ronaldo. Sanches is a different kind of player: a sturdy little midfield general who likes passing the ball far too much to be Ronaldo's stylistic successor.
The fee which many believe will trigger Benfica's sale of Sanches is €40m although United are expected to face competition from Real Madrid. Given the success of Anthony Martial, you can see why United are most confident in this particular market, where teenage talent feels, however expensive, like an investment that has greater scope to recoup its outlay.
If Sanches does come to the Premier League, he will do so at first-team level and, therefore, a good deal further up the hierarchy than much of the teenage academy talent imported from Europe. For those boys it is a strange time indeed to be a teenage prodigy in English football: an era when they will fill your pockets with cash but cannot guarantee you a peg in the first-team dressing room.
The market for teenage footballers is the natural expansionist territory for an elite game engaged in a never-ending battle to control the talent supply. The best teenagers have always been sought-after - in the early 1950s, scouts from all over converged on Bobby Charlton's family home in Northumberland and, in the end, he did not sign for his local club - but never have these modern footballers, many of them still children, felt more like traded commodities.
What a strange world it is when Chelsea win their fifth FA Youth Cup in seven years and the question is not how many of that side, painstakingly scouted, coached and developed, will make it, but whether any at all will reach the first team. Or that one Chelsea FA Youth Cup-winning alumnus, the 18-year-old forward Dominic Solanke, is asking for £50,000 per week for his next deal despite his first-team career comprising just 17 minutes.
Of course, the clubs' arms-race to sign the top talent is a major part of the problem, with its attendant inflation of wages for teenagers who become newly minted professionals, in all senses of the phrase, on their 17th birthday.
Agents are low on the list of those with whom fans feel any empathy, and that is understandable.
But it is notable that the majority of the top players who have got the most from their careers have been managed by one robust individual prepared to tell them the hard truth when necessary - and whose livelihood is not dependent on any single client.
Either way, you do wonder who is protecting the child's interests in all this. At the end of 2014, the then 16-year-old Norwegian Martin Odegaard's beauty parade around Europe's top clubs, led by his father Hans Erik, ended with him signing for Real Madrid. Now 17, he plays for the club's B-team Castilla and, while one only wishes Odegaard the very best, observers say he is not markedly better than all the other teenage hopefuls.
There will always be those who fight their way to the top, but as the market becomes ever more extreme, and the stakes higher, the welfare of children and young adults is about more than just dishing out big contracts.
As for Sanches, he is already a Champions League footballer and way ahead of his age-group peers, although it is saying something that if he does come to Old Trafford, the expectation and the fee will be far higher than it was originally for the little-known Ronaldo of 2003, he of the famous name and the shaky voice.