He’s being talked up as the future of Portugal’s national team and the likely heir to Cristiano Ronaldo.
Renato Sanches certainly has plenty to live up to.
The flamboyant, dreadlocked Sanches arrived at the European Championship with a reputation as one of the continent’s most-talented young players. Bayern Munich clearly thought so, reportedly beating Manchester United to the 18-year-old winger’s signature by handing him one of the richest contracts in Bundesliga history for a transfer fee that could climb to about $90 million.
At Euro 2016, he’s showing what all the fuss is about.
After starting the tournament on the bench, Sanches forced his way into the starting lineup thanks to an attention-grabbing cameo as a second-half substitute against Croatia in the round of 16.
UEFA’s technical group even selected him as man of the match, and handed him the award again five days later after Sanches scored — and upstaged Ronaldo — in the quarterfinal win over Poland in a penalty shootout. Sanches, of course, had no qualms taking one of the early penalties.
Fearless, hard-working, and with a bag of tricks: Sanches looks the real deal even at this age. UEFA has already said he is in contention for Young Player of the Tournament award. And he is surely now a guaranteed starter against Wales in the semifinal in Lyon on Wednesday.
“I think he is a special, special young man,” Portugal midfielder Andre Gomes said Monday at the squad’s training base southwest of Paris.
Gomes, who lost his place to Sanches for the Poland game, should know. They played alongside each other in the youth-team set-up at Portuguese club Benfica, with Gomes immediately seeing the potential.
“There’s no surprise the way he has been performing,” Gomes said. “We know how far we can go.”
That must be a relief for Portugal, which for so long has leant heavily on Ronaldo — the country’s record scorer and greatest sporting export. At 31, though, the Real Madrid star may only have one more major tournament in him and the likes of Nani and Ricardo Quaresma, though technically gifted, lack the consistency to assume Ronaldo’s mantle.
Sanches, then, appears to be Ronaldo’s natural heir.
“He’s a nice kid, he listens to the old guys, he wants to learn, which is good,” Portugal defender Jose Fonte said. “It’s great to have him around and he’ll be the future of the national side, for sure.”
A right-sided midfielder with pace and directness, Sanches reminds Portugal coach Fernando Santos of another of the country’s greats — the late Mario Coluna, who starred for Portugal and Benfica in the 1960s.
“I don’t think the Renato you see today is the one we’ll see in the future,” Santos said. “He’s still growing and he has to take all his qualities and put them all on the pitch. It’s my job to help him do this.”
Sanches is perking up what can be a sterile Portugal team. Early in the Poland game, he collected the ball on the right wing and drove straight at the defense. He beat the first defender before getting dispossessed, but it was a sign of things to come.
Later, from a similar position, he played a one-two with Nani and thumped a shot that deflected into the corner to become — at 18 years, 316 days — the youngest scorer in a European Championship knockout game. He was already the youngest player to start for Portugal in a major tournament.
Sanches’ work rate also stands out. He just never stops.
“He’s got no fear. He just doesn’t care,” Fonte said. “He goes and asks for the ball every second.
“He’s got power and strength, energy to run all day and great ability. It is lucky for Bayern Munich that they have him.”
Wales’ players: Consider yourselves warned. There’s plenty more to Portugal than Ronaldo.