Among the many doomed and dreadful writing projects I occasionally pretend to be working on is a Bret Easton Ellis-style football novel about a hip, talented, existentially glazed and clueless wonderkid being passed around Europe’s super-clubs by the shady financial powers that run the world game.
The lead character is an interchangeable starlet, probably Portuguese, called something generic like Rui Pinto or José Costa. Tattooed and glossed, garlanded with premature honours, his entire private and professional life is owned by a Gestifute-style talent agency. He wears sunglasses and huge headphones and speaks mainly in emojis, while being shuttled from elite subs bench to seven star hotel, generating endless income without any tangible interaction with the human world.
There might be a scene where Pinto-Costa finds himself alone with Cristiano Ronaldo as he pomades his eyebrows before a Champions League quarter-final and is reduced to a state of mumbling reverence in the glow of his celebrity. He buys apartments and cars in six major European cities and has a tabloid affair with a reality TV star he’s never met and who may be fictional, a typo in a magazine that got out of hand. Eventually he disappears somewhere between Beijing and Doha after forgetting his own name in the VIP lounge of an international airport.
Thinking about it you could probably base quite a lot of this on Renato Sanches’s Twitter account, which is surely the saddest, most touchingly empty celebrity football Twitter account yet created. Sanches is there in various approved portraits, looking remote and glossy in sponsored garb. He follows only two people: Ronaldo and Ricardo Quaresma. He’s never replied to a single message. The last time he used an actual human word was in October 2016. Lean close to your screen and his Twitter feed smells of cologne, luxury interiors and loneliness.
Sanches came to mind this week with the suggestion that Dele Alli might leave Tottenham in the summer if one of Europe’s mega-clubs makes a suitably massive bid. Manchester City were mentioned, a story that has since been denied by Xavi, its apparent source. Either way this is a rumour that has been doing the rounds for a while, alongside Alli to Real Madrid and, by way of variation, Alli to Paris Saint-Germain.
Yes, really. That Dele Alli. Our own 21-year-old young player of the year, recently of League One, a precious, exhilarating talent who made his Premier League debut only a year and half ago, who started slowly this season and who still hasn’t come close to exploring the outer fringes of his own prodigious gifts.
Alli surely won’t leave, although the possibility will lurk and fester if only because this is the way of football now: talent must always be pawed at and disrupted. Even when, as in this case, it is hard to think of a worse idea than uprooting a player is currently improving at a thrilling rate, lodged in a rare sweet spot of the right player at the right club with the right manager; and who still seems goofy and half-formed at times, at others utterly imperious, striding about the pitch like a baby cartoon grasshopper let loose among the grown-ups.
Hard to think of worse ideas. But not impossible. At which point enter Sanches, who once again failed to make an appearance on the pitch this week as Bayern were beaten in the German Cup semi finals by Borussia Dortmund.
Sanches is a year younger than Alli. Increasingly he looks not just like a cautionary tale for any grand talent in football’s bay of sharks; but a convincing candidate for the title of most startlingly strange meteoric 24-month first-team career ever, even in a notably odd modern game.
His rise at Benfica was thrillingly swift. A first team debut in October 2015 was followed within a year by a league and league cup double, a Euro 2016 winners medal with Portugal and a mega-money move to Bayern.
Sanches looked like something genuinely precious at the Euros, a tyro general with the skill to hold the ball, the boldness and strength to stride through the midfield and the brain to pick a pass. This was a player who just needed to be left to grow and learn and keep on pushing the limits of his own talent.
This was never really an option. Sanches was already signed to Bayern, his agent Jorge Mendes too expert at making money, the deal for Benfica too good to resist. Sanches will bring in another £5m more for every 25 appearances over the next five seasons. If he wins the Ballon d’Or Benfica get £20m on the spot, albeit Bayern are probably safe on that score for now.
To date Sanches is still to score a goal for them. He is still to provide an assist in his club football career in Germany and Portugal. It’s not getting much better. The German Newspaper TZ described Sanches’s most recent start, during which “Bavaria’s rasta rocket” repeatedly gave the ball away, as “really scary”. Those brief but compelling performances at the Euros still represent 10% of all the football Sanches has played in his entire professional career. For all the hype, the riches, this is a footballer who is still barely there.
The idea is he will play next season when Xabi Alonso has gone, although Josh Kimmich and Sebastian Rudy, also in the store cupboard, may have something to say about that. Whatever happens a year has been lost, opportunities not seized, knowledge not accumulated, techniques and methods not grooved.
Just as the real lesson here is that money is an eviscerating force in football, the market is not kind, or wise, or tender in its ministrations. The stockpiling of talent as a long-term investment bond, like buy-to-let London housing, or land-banked supermarket acres, is ultimately a destructive act. Gabriel Jesus might be bold enough to escape the effects. Kylian Mbappé is surely too good to fall for it. But modern football is also littered young talents who took the money, moved too soon and saw those delicate developmental years flushed out into a desiccating light.
So don’t do it, Dele. Or at least take a lesson from Renato Sanches, a grand talent that will surely come again, but who remains for now in a state of glazed and gilded suspension.