Yesterday’s Portugal-Poland match started in surprisingly auspicious fashion, considering it was a match between two teams with only a passing interest in doing anything fun or exciting in an effort to go out and win. Poland’s Robert Lewandowski scored the game’s first goal less than two minutes after the opening whistle, which meant Portugal knew straight off that they’d have to attack for at least a while if they didn’t want to leave the Euros early. That drive to get forward, which resulted in a pretty goal by the even prettier wonderteen Renato Sanches in the 33rd minute, made for an entertaining first half. Then both teams basically sat on their hands for another 90 minutes until penalties came around, and Portugal came out on top.
Still, the game wasn’t entirely devoid of worthwhile action. Like the aforementioned Sanches goal, which was a beauty:
Really, Sanches was the architect of most everything that was worth looking at during the match. Not least of which being that incredibly handsome face of his. Look into this beautiful 18-year-old manchild’s eyes, regard the gentle swishes of his neatly manicured dreads as the full-grown body below carries him to and fro, and try not to fall in love:
So freaking cute!
Luckily, the budding star has a game almost as gorgeous as he is. Sanches emerged this past season as one of the most coveted young talents in Europe, so impressive were his performances all over the pitch at Benfica. Primarily a box-to-box central midfield type, he can play attacking and defensive roles in the center of the park with aplomb, and can even do work out on the wings, where he played yesterday. There’s a reason Bayern Munich bought him for a fee starting at €35 million with another €45 million in potential variables. He has oceans of potential.
While Sanches is a good player already at such a young age, he’s still very raw. His decision making is often bad, his tactical awareness is almost non-existent, he makes lots of mistakes with the ball, and still doesn’t have a defining skill outside of his copious physical gifts to lift him from a really good player who runs all over the pitch to a true great.
What was most promising about his performance yesterday, though, was how naturally he assumed a leading role in the match. He attempted and won more take-ons than anyone else on the pitch, led Portugal in number of touches, was second on his team in passes attempted and completed, scored the equalizing goal and also converted a penalty in the shootout.
Whenever Portugal looked like they might do something, it was because Sanches ran over to where the ball was, took it for himself, and tried to make something happen. Not Cristiano Ronaldo, not Nani, not Ricardo Quaresma—it was Sanches, a kid who’d probably would’ve just graduated high school (if he hadn’t already been spotted by some modeling agency and whisked around the world strutting down runways) had he been born in America, who sought to take over the game in an effort to win his team a spot in the Euro 2016 semifinals. Sanches sensed the moment, and wanted to be the one in charge. And his older, more famous and established teammates let him lead.
Portugal as a whole have had sort of a weird tournament. They looked dominant at times during the group stage, even though their troubles getting the ball over the goal line meant they had to settle for three draws. In the knockout rounds, the team made the sensible but boredom-inducing decision to focus almost entirely on sitting back on defense and trying to nab a counterattacking goal or two on the break through the feet of Ronaldo and Nani. It’s been arguably effective (while Portugal are in the semis, they’ve also not one a single match all tournament in regulation time) and unmistakably dull.
However, there’s still Sanches out there, steaming up and down the pitch full bore, always hunting for the ball so that he can invent a moment of magic to change the game, swinging those dreads and flashing that smile when he does succeed in conjuring something, or at least comes close. Sanches might still only be a teen, but he’s already an eyeful.