Renato Sanches is being hailed as Portugal’s star of the future but the dreadlocked wonder kid is already causing controversy amid the rave reviews.
“Portugal’s prodigal son” and “the golden kid” were two of the headlines after the rags-to-riches teenager’s stunning equaliser and calm from the penalty spot kept Portugal on course for Euro 2016 glory as they saw off Poland 5-3 in a shootout to reach the semifinals.
In doing so Sanches broke Cristiano Ronaldo’s record as the youngest-ever scorer in the knockout stages of the European Championships.
Portugal’s captain and record goalscorer suddenly has competition for the tag of his nation’s golden boy.
But questions have been asked about whether Sanches is really just 18.
And in more controversy, his former youth club accuse Benfica of failing to pay a promised bonus despite the Portuguese giants cashing in on Sanches’ talent by selling him to Bayern Munich last month for 35 million euros ($38 million).
Born in the modest Lisbon suburb of Amadora, his August 18, 1997 date of birth has been questioned by several Portuguese sports pundits and, above all, by the directors of Benfica’s age-old rivals Sporting Lisbon. It is a controversy that refuses to go away.
Sanches has even threatened to sue ebullient Sporting president Bruno de Carvalho, who in March called on the Amadora hospital where he was born to clarify once and for all the midfielder’s true age.
Carlos Severino, a television commentator and a former candidate for the Sporting presidency, landed in hot water last November when he said Sanches’ muscular physique was “very physically developed for his age” and suggested “he must have taken a lot of vitamins”.
That description earned Severino an immediate claim for defamation.
The Jornal de Noticias newspaper conducted an investigation with supporting documents claiming the youngster was indeed born on August 18, 1997 at the Amadora-Sintra hospital, but the birth was not registered until August 22, 2002.
The report said Sanches was not even five months old when his father, from the African island of Sao Tome and Principe, separated from his Cape Verdean mother, and emigrated to France.
It was not until five years later that his father returned to deal with the registration of his son’s birth, which is where the doubts surrounding his age arise.
Affectionately called “Bulo” by his nearest and dearest, Sanches grew up in Musgueira, a densely populated area of northern Lisbon, where he started to play football aged eight for a local amateur club before being spotted and recruited by Benfica when he was just nine.
Benfica made the modest promise of 25 balls and a bonus to the Aguias da Musgueira club should Sanches ever turn pro, but their president Antonio da Silva Quadros is still waiting. “We don’t have the balls or the money,” he said, other than a 750-euro ($832) grant for the junior team.
The club is still seeking its due from Benfica, while Sanches is headed for the Bundesliga.
“Renato was audacious, he was a pure product of street football,” Renato Paiva, one of his former coaches at the Benfica academy, told the Expresso newspaper.
“At first he wasn’t very obedient. He came from a neighbourhood where there weren’t many rules and he struggled to understand that he was now in a world where rules were necessary.”
His power, passing range and poise on the ball have seen comparisons made with Dutch greats Edgar Davids and Clarence Seedorf. Yet he has drawn inspiration from outside the football world.
“You never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have,” he posted on Twitter last week, evoking the words of Bob Marley.
At such a tender age Sanches has shown his strength and maturity to deal with the ups and downs that pursue a fledgling football career.
Targeted with racist abuse by Rio Ave fans in April, he responded with a smile and a monkey impression to disarm his haters as he left the field.