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.