NXGN x Euro 2020: Why the whole world wants Nuno Mendes
By Mark Doyle
Sporting C.P. boss Ruben Amorim was asked in April if he thought 18-year-old left-back Nuno Mendes was already good enough to play for one of Europe's top clubs.
"He won't be ready this year," he insisted. "Or next year."
"Maybe only five years from now," he added, before finally succumbing to laughter.
Amorim knows better than anyone that Mendes is a prodigious talent, one destined to leave Lisbon sooner rather than later.
It is futile to even try to pretend otherwise.
Former Sporting coach Leonel Pontes knew from the moment that he first saw Mendes in action that the Sintra native was special.
"It was June 2019," he tells Goal. "I was brought to the club to take charge of Under-23s and, alongside a friend from the U19s, I watched some footage of their games.
"From what I saw, you could tell that he was very fast, already highly evolved technically and that he had great potential. He was a kid that made us very excited about his future at Sporting."
Pontes certainly knows a top prospect when he sees one. During his first spell with Sporting, between 2002 and 2009, he served in a number of positions, including boss of the ‘B’ team, where he worked with a certain Cristiano Ronaldo.
Pontes says it would be ridiculous to make comparisons between Mendes and the five-time Ballon d'Or winner because "they are different players and different personalities".
However, he does believe that "Nuno's financial impact at Sporting will be bigger than that of Ronaldo, because when Ronaldo was sold (in 2003, to Manchester United) the market values were smaller than they are today."
Sporting are well aware of that too. They realise that the only option now is to secure as much money as possible for one of the most promising young players in world football. As a result, they have already increased Mendes' buy-out clause twice in the past year, and it now stands at €70 million (£60m/$82.5m).
That might seem like a lofty fee for such a young player in the current economic climate, but we are talking about an outstanding teenager that has already been capped five times by Portugal and included in Fernando Santos' squad for this summer's European Championship.
Sporting know that they are just lucky to have him.
Porto and Benfica had both been interested in Mendes when he first came to the attention of the country's best scouts in 2012.
He was just 10 at the time and playing for Despertar, a club located in Casal de Cambra, some 20 kilometres north of the centre of Lisbon. He had only joined the year before, but it had quickly become clear that he was gifted.
"We always started training with the 'ball-hunter'," Diego Goncalves, one of his coaches at the time, told Record. "We gave six or seven balls to 14 kids and they tried to get the ball off of each other.
"The exercise ended when Nuno was without the ball, which usually took around 15 minutes. Just to see the quality he had – it was outstanding."
Despertar had known that from day one, though.
Mendes had been brought along to a training session in 2011 by Bruno Botelho. The school teacher was convinced his student was good. He just was not sure how good.
The nine-year-old had never played organised football before. He had learned the game on the streets. And it showed right away.
"We did a one-on-one exercise against the goalkeeper to see where he was strong," Botelho told Record. "Nuno lifted the ball over the goalkeeper with a 'cabrito' (rainbow flick), and scored with a no-look finish like Ronaldinho used to do."
Hardly surprising, then, that Mendes was initially deployed as a trequartista or wide attacker by Sporting, whom he joined in 2012.
However, his youth-team coaches quickly realised that their latest protege had all of the requisite attributes of the modern full-back. He was quick, diligent, industrious, indefatigable and skilful.
The transition from attacker to defender was not easy and Sporting have subsequently admitted that they came close to letting him go.
However, Mendes is nothing if not a feisty, determined character. Indeed, his personality is perhaps best illustrated by the circumstances surrounding his decision to join Sporting.
"(Club scout) Akil Momade saw me playing and called me to talk to him," the teenager told Record. "Later, when I was alone at home, he knocked on my door.
"I found it strange and went to get a knife from the kitchen. I thought someone had come to rob me. When I opened the door I saw that it was him, I calmed down! He even showed me a Sporting card so I wouldn't be suspicious!
"He told me they wanted me at Sporting and I went with all my heart."
Mendes, then, was never going to give up on his dream of representing the club at senior level just because he had some difficulty adapting to a new role.
"Nuno is a very chilled kid," Pontes says, "he likes hanging out in a group but he's very focused in training and always reacts very well to adversity during matches.
"He doesn't speak a lot. He lets his football do the talking for him. I can say that he is a very humble kid with a positive personality. But he's determined and ambitious. He wants to participate, to compete and to win."
Even accounting for such a mature and professional attitude, Mendes' rapid progression to the first team was truly astounding.
"Nuno was so effective on fast breaks because once he stretched his legs, he could get into crossing areas so quickly," Pontes explains. "He continued to work on that area of his game, going between defence and attack, as well as regrouping after the team lost the ball and passing moves with his team-mates.
"As a result, he became more decisive in each and every game. Indeed, he was top of our assists charts for the U23s. We knew that if he could already make a difference at this level – not only because of his great technique, but also due to his efficiency – it would only be a matter of time before he got a chance with the first team."
Bizarrely, the pandemic actually helped in that regard. After the Covid-19 outbreak had brought a premature end to the 2019-20 season at under-age level last spring, Mendes and several other youth-team stars were called into the senior squad by Amorim.
Mendes wasted little time in impressing the new coach, who had succeeded Silas at the helm just before the suspension of play across Europe, and made his professional debut as a substitute in Sporting's second game back after lockdown, against Pacos de Ferreira.
Just six days later, while still only 17 years of age, Mendes became the club's youngest starter since Ronaldo.
He has been Amorim's first-choice left-wing-back ever since, and it is easy to understand why. The defensive side of Mendes' game remains a work in progress, but he is improving all the time.
It is worth noting that in a title-winning side that conceded just 20 goals and lost only one game, no other Sporting player made more interceptions (60), ranking eighth in the Primeira Liga overall.
However, what is really striking about Mendes is just how comfortable he is in possession. He may have only been directly involved in two goals, but he was a massive attacking outlet for Sporting last season.
He ranked second in both successful crosses (41) and dribbles completed (44) for the Portuguese champions, and third for both duels won (186) and fouls won (59).
Long story short, he is an absolute nightmare for opposition full-backs.
"I really don't think there's a huge amount he can improve upon from an attacking perspective," Pontes argues. "When he receives the ball in one-versus-one situations, he has the ability to beat opponents for pace, to dribble past them or just to get the ball into the area quickly and effectively because he is a very good crosser.
"His crosses are fast and he never needs much space to get them away. If his team-mates learn where he's going to put the ball, he will create a lot of dangerous situations for any team.
"Nuno is also very good at recovering possession, but I think he still has to evolve in the air. The other thing he has to learn is the right time to drop back and defend. But it's something he's worked on a lot and he's becoming very good at containing opponents without committing fouls.
"The bottom line is that Nuno will perform best in an attacking team. If a team defends more than they attack, we won't see the best of Nuno. He is most effective in offensive teams that want to stretch the game with their full-backs joining the attack. He's a player for teams that like to have the ball. If you restrict him offensively, you will lose Nuno as a player."
The good news is that because of Amorim's preferred 3-5-2 formation at Sporting, Mendes is given plenty of freedom and opportunities to surge down the left flank, and is just as capable of beating his man on the inside or the outside.
Indeed, what is most pleasing about Mendes' development is that his natural instincts have not been curbed. He has not lost the skills of the street footballer, as his first senior goal so thrillingly underlined.
Against Portimonense last October, Mendes skipped around one opponent, prodded the ball past another and then, demonstrating remarkable ingenuity, back-flicked the ball past one final defender before coolly slotting him with his weaker right foot.
It remains his only senior goal to date, but nobody is in any doubt that more will follow.
"He has a very promising future," Santos said after handing Mendes his Portugal debut against Azerbaijan in March, "not only in the national team but at club level too."
Given his rapid rate of development, it certainly would not be a surprise to see him leave his mark on Euro 2020.
Portugal find themselves in the 'Group of Death', alongside Germany, France and Hungary, and 27-year-old Borussia Dortmund star Raphael Guerreiro is favourite to start at left-back in Santos' side.
However, Mendes impressed while Guerreiro was sidelined for the start of the Seleccao's World Cup qualifying campaign in March, and Pontes would not be shocked to see the youngster feature in the Euros.
"Nuno has already shown the maturity to play at this level and has already shown his quality," he says. "We also have to say that Raphael Guerreiro is a great player, but the competition will be intense and Nuno at least has a chance of getting into the starting XI."
Regardless of how much game time he sees this summer, though, what is clear is that Mendes is set for a long and successful career at international level.
He has already been taken under Ronaldo's wing, while another Seleccao star, Bruno Fernandes, is such a big fan that he is reportedly keen to see Mendes join him at Manchester United next season.
There will be intense competition for Mendes' services, though.
Inter's financial problems are well-known at this stage but the Nerazzurri would dearly love to see Mendes move in the opposite direction to Joao Mario, who is set to see his loan move to Sporting become permanent in the coming weeks.
Manchester City have plenty of cash reserves, of course, but they too are said to be considering a similar player-plus-cash deal, given Pedro Porro is set to return to the Etihad from Sporting next year.
Mendes himself has admitted that he dreams of playing in the Premier League one day, but he also grew up idolising Real Madrid and Brazil left-back Marcelo, and the Blancos have also been credited with an interest in his services.
Sporting would obviously like to see Mendes stay for one more season, but a transfer is now looking inevitable for a player who placed 23rd in this year's NXGN list of the world’s best teenage footballers.
"If I were a scout for the big clubs in Europe, I would be looking at him," former Portugal international Costinha told Goal. "There aren't many left-backs in the world with that quality – I would definitely go and pick him.
"He is strong physically and in his head. He has an excellent left foot and he has very good pace. Sometimes, I think he needs to learn more about defending, but he is only 18. He has so much time to improve.
"I don't think he will still be [at Sporting] next season."
That remains to be seen, of course, but he certainly will not be staying for another five years, that’s for sure.
"There's no player that's ready to move to the very highest level at just 18 years of age because it's such a drastic change," Pontes says. "Not even Ronaldo was ready. You can't really prepare for it because everything is new. You can only experience it and then deal with it.
"If Nuno were to leave now for one of the big leagues, there's a fundamental aspect to consider: what will the support around him be like? Will the new club provide him with all of the conditions required to help him do his job?
"However, on a personal level, I think Nuno is already well prepared."
Indeed, Amorim may not want to publicly admit it yet, but it is clear that Nuno Mendes is already perfectly primed for the big time.