Renato Sanches took charge of his future this summer. Bayern Munich’s 2-2 draw with Hertha Berlin on the Bundesliga opening day in mid-August provided enough evidence for the Portuguese to decide he should no longer submit to the will of the champions and endure another season of uncertainty in Germany.
Bayern’s failure to beat Hertha at home was a surprise to many, but there was little out of character about coach Niko Kovac issuing Sanches a five-minute cameo as the match drew to a close. The token appearance had become an all to familiar gesture for the former Benfica midfielder and this time Sanches decided a change was needed.
“It’s not a good situation, five minutes is not enough for me and it’s the second time I’ve asked to leave and they won’t let me,” he told reporters post-match, after which Bayern CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge quickly urged the youngster to “calm down” amid reports Sanches had left the stadium a little too abruptly.
Sanches certainly cannot be accused of impatience. 2019 has been a miserable existence for one of Portugal’s brightest talents, with less than two hours of playing time between the New Year and the end of last season owing largely to Bayern’s stubborn insistence on retaining a player against his wishes and presumably those of their coach, who rarely showed signs of fulfilling his early season promises that Sanches would play a bigger role in his side.
Kovac fronted up to the media in January, confirming an approach from Paris Saint-Germain had been turned down and insisting he wanted to keep Sanches. The Croatian boss no doubt paid lip service for a board hesitant to dispense with a talent for which they parted with €35m ahead of the European Championships in 2016, despite increasing evidence that Sanches was not an important part of Kovac’s plans.
Sanches stayed at Bayern until the end of the season, occasionally expressing his dissatisfaction with how things had progressed. Yet the 22-year-old agreed to take one more shot at proving himself in Munich after three years of stagnation since helping the Seleção to glory in Paris, with Bayern once more insisting greater involvement on the pitch was imminent. After five minutes against Hertha in August, Sanches decided enough was enough.
French club Lille, a more prosperous home to various Portuguese in recent years, had been following the situation closely and when Bayern sporting director Hassam Salihamidzic conceded in the aftermath of Sanches’ outburst that “all options are open” ahead of the close of the transfer market, the Ligue 1 club made their move. Within days the deal was done and Sanches was paraded as Lille’s record signing at €25m.
“Bonjour, je suis Renato,” pronounced with barely a hint of foreign tone, was Sanches’ chosen introduction to journalists upon his unveiling, before conducting the press conference in his second tongue, English, and assuring those in attendance he would learn French fluently soon. An impressive repertoire of languages for someone of such tender years exhibited a man who claims the experience in Munich helped him grow up.
“I think in football you get the good and the bad,” he continued as he faced the local media for the first time. “When it’s bad, you just have to keep working. I believe I have the qualities to be a good player. I have already won some titles but my aim is to win more and if I work hard I think I will get my reward.”
The desire of Sanches to force his exit from Bayern in order to reignite his career should be applauded. In an era during which the biggest clubs can struggle to shift inactive players, especially when the change on offer represents a step down in status, Sanches represents a young player with the hunger to progress and explore his potential. Indeed Bayern’s somewhat curious attachment to him offered the Amadora native every justification to sit on his contract at one of the world’s most glamourous clubs.
Lille is now his home, however, and speaking this week ahead of the team’s Champions League trip to Ajax, Sanches remains insistent that the difficult periods of a player’s career are a test of resolve. “I’ve had my ups and downs, but you have to keep fighting,” he told French radio. “The most important thing is to play with joy, to do your best and never give up because you never know what will happen tomorrow. We grow and we realise that we have to evolve and change some aspects, especially when things aren’t going well. I think I’m more mature than I was a year or two ago, even if on the pitch I’m the same player.
“In the first year [at Bayern] I didn’t adapt well. I wasn’t prepared because it was such a quick change. I had six months at Benfica and suddenly I was at one of the best teams in the world. By the second year I had adapted and wanted to stay, though things didn’t go well. But playing for Bayern was important for me because I learned so much. It’s where I matured.”
While adamant that the arrested development in his football career came with the benefit of personal growth, Sanches has always refuted the notion that his struggles have been due to any lack of professionalism. “People talk a lot without knowing anything. They are not there to see what your daily life is like. I train, I go home and I spend most of my time there. Sometimes I go out for dinner like everyone else. But when things aren’t going well on the pitch people who don’t know you always find something to be critical of, but I’ve always had a normal lifestyle and I’m professional. It didn’t bother me what people said though as I know how I’ve lived.”
Lille, where vice-captain José Fonte was “an influence” on his decision to join, provide a fresh start for Sanches, and this midweek’s trip to the Amsterdam Arena presents the first major opportunity to make his mark for Christophe Galtier’s side. Weeks after celebrating his 22nd birthday, Sanches will be aware that time is on his side to grow into the player many hoped when he dazzled for Benfica and Portugal three years ago.
As the Bayern experience fades into history so, many will argue, do the excuses. Sanches has what he wants. Lille’s record-breaking outlay was a demonstration of faith in his ability and he will be expected to finally deliver on his promise in France.
Over to you, Renato.
By Sean Gillen