Young, gifted and black: Why Renato Sanches age claims veer dangerously close to racism

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It's a disgrace that the Portuguese teenager is forced, on the eve of a Euros semi-final, to deal with accusations that have been proven to be false


GOALCOMMENT

Renato Sanches is cursed with being young, gifted and black. Like so many top talents before him, he's being subjected to a hateful and baseless smear campaign that has its roots in racism.

The 18-year-old has blossomed into one of the brightest stars of Euro 2016, improving with every game just as his compatriot Cristiano Ronaldo did 12 years ago. Ronaldo never had to fend off questions about his age like Sanches, however; and the reason is because Ronaldo is white.

Instead of looking forward to Wednesday's semi-final against Wales with wide-eyed anticipation, Sanches is being hounded with accusations that his date of birth is fake and that he's actually many years older. Portugal coach Fernando Santos dismissed speculation in Tuesday's pre-match press conference that his youngest star is considerably older.

"Sanches was born in Portugal, not just anywhere, in Portugal," he told reporters. "He is 18, I'm 61. There's no doubt about that. I was born 61 years ago and I'm 61. He was born 18 years ago, he's 18."

The person alleged to be responsible for making a public debate out of Benfica star Sanches' age is Sporting president Bruno de Carvalho. On March 20, a lengthy Facebook post from the club president included this indirect call for Sanches' birth date of August 18, 1997 to be clarified: "1997 was already in a modern period of our society, and, as such, if they just release the birth certificate of hospital Amadora-Sintra [where Sanches was born] they will put this matter to bed once and for all."

Jornal de Noticias revealed that Sanches' father moved to France having split up with his mother a few months after his birth. As a result, Sanches' birth wasn't registered until 2002, when his father returned to Portugal. The player has no case to answer and, whether intended consciously or unconsciously, those who continue to raise the question of his age are veering dangerously close to racism.

The comments were a low blow and arrived at a convenient time as Sporting tussled for the Primeira Liga title with Benfica. It didn't affect Sanches sportingly in the short-term, thankfully.  Benfica finished two points clear of Sporting and Bayern Munich splashed out €35 million on one of the most talented young players in the world.

Sanches wasn't finished with the matter, though. Record reported in May that the teenager has demanded that the Sporting president apologise publicly for his comments or face being sued. "He would have a valid defamation case because it raises doubts about the honour and reputation of a very sensitive issue of Sanches' age," Portuguese libel lawyer Joao Diogo Manteigas said.

This week the news once again hit the headlines when former Auxerre coach Guy Roux told a Romanian news outlet: "[Sanches] says that he is 18 years old, but I believe that we have to look at his past. His date of birth was declared years after he was born, so his registered date is not correct. I can assure you that he is 23 or 24."

Sanches is justifiably bitter about the slanderous stories - after all, he's done nothing to deserve it. ​"A lot of people disrespected Benfica and myself with those stories," he said last month. "They said Renato wasn't 18, but 22 or 23. I grew up in Portugal I was at Benfica for 10 years - how could I be 25 as some have claimed?"

The underlying issue that is often at play when a black player is questioned about his age is one of powerful racial prejudices. There have been numerous instances over the past 30 years where African youth teams have been caught fielding overage players. FIFA banned Nigerian youth teams in 1989 for that offence, a South African Under-15 captain was revealed to be 24 years old by a journalist, and in 2010 Senegal withdrew three Under-17 national team players after an MRI scan revealed they were overage.

The common factor here is that all these incidents involve Africans. Why? The answer is a complicated one, with blame falling at the feet of many parties. Sometimes agents and players will play an active role in lying about their age. Sometimes teams will knowingly turn a blind eye to players who look or act older than they claim.

However, sometimes the relative poverty in parts of the continent mean that birth records and school years aren't tracked as well as in Europe and America. Some of the players accused of cheating might not even know themselves that they are older than they are claiming.

But Sanches isn't African and he's never lived in Africa. Like many black men living in Europe, that hasn't stopped others from questioning his age. If there were doubts about Sanches' age they should have been raised in private, rather than leave him with baggage that will creep behind him for the rest of his career.

If anyone tries to argue that there's a historical problem with age cheating and black players that permits Sanches to be suspected, then that is clear racism. Such an argument crumbles into a heap when examined. It's like assuming a Muslim man's a terrorist, or a Thai woman's a prostitute, or a black man's a thief – these are offensive tropes that are imposed upon millions of people every day without justification and, usually, without consequence.

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If you google 'Renato Sanches' today, the first page of results is crammed with stories on this age controversy. It's a sad situation and one consolation is that not everyone in football in stooping to such regrettable depths. When asked if Sanches was indeed 18 years old in Tuesday's pre-match press conference, Wales manager Chris Coleman completely ignored the framing.

"He's a good player," he responded. "I've watched him for some years, playing with Benfica with the younger teams. You never know if these players are going to come through or fall by the wayside. He's really impressed. He has a big heart for the occasion."

By doing so, he set a perfect example for the rest of us to follow: such nonsense doesn't deserve a response. Journalists, fans and football folk who do question his age need to be educated that they're baseless accusations. Talking about it in any capacity that isn't dismissive and disapproving is just fanning a racially-fuelled fire that deserves to be extinguished – not just for Sanches' sake, but for the sake of future young, gifted and black footballers.

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