A Child Prodigy's Fate Jadon Sancho's Path to the Bundesliga

Young English football star Jadon Sancho is electrifying the Bundesliga, Germany's top league. Manchester City spent years trying to secure the player for the long term, even apparently resorting to irregular payments. But he landed in Germany nonetheless.

AFP

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The path to the goal is blocked by two Mönchengladbach defenders, so Jadon Sancho feints a step toward the penalty box before reversing course and running up the field.

Again, the defenders converge on the Dortmund striker. But in the next moment, one of them tumbles past Sancho and the other suddenly finds himself three meters away from the ball. Because Sancho has suddenly changed direction. With no warning whatsoever.

If this were a cartoon, the two opponents would be left seeing nothing but a cloud of Sancho's dust. The player passes the ball off, but the Mönchengladbach defense is in complete disarray, played into a confused mess by an 18-year-old.

Jadon Sancho is "refreshingly different in the way he goes past players, using a lot of disguise, body shape and feints coupled with the ability to just show enough of the ball to the defender to suck him in before using quick feet to move the ball and get past."

This analysis describes how the young player from England is able to scurry his way between exasperated defenders. It was written, however, fully five years ago by a scout from the English team Manchester City. At the time, Sancho had just turned 14.

With his dribbling, passing and goal scoring, Sancho has led Borussia Dortmund to the top of the Bundesliga table. In seemingly hopeless situations, his teammates often try to find Sancho, whose flashes of inspiration frequently lead to immediate scoring opportunities.

Irregular Payments

Sancho has become a key player for Borussia, in addition to being a poster child for English player development, a youth idol, a millionaire -- and he may perhaps generate the next record transfer fee for his current club. Internal documents from the Football Leaks trove of data make it possible to trace Sancho's path to Dortmund, by way of scouting reports, emails and contracts. Along the way, irregular payments can also be found.

Sancho himself has thus far spoken publicly almost exclusively in the form of interviews given in English. In a YouTube video made by an English sportswear company, he is standing on an artificial turf pitch on a gray winter day chatting with a moderator. He explains that in a match against Hertha BSC, the team from Berlin, he played against 33-year-old Salomon Kalou. "Do you know how old he is?" he asks, smiling incredulously.

Sancho is the first professional from Borussia Dortmund who was born in the year 2000 and he represents a new generation of players who never experienced the less-telegenic mullet years. He only knows the sport in its present-day, glitzy commercialism.

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When asked whether he prefers assisting or firing goals in himself, he answers: "I like entertaining." Playing against Frankfurt, he stopped so suddenly in the box that two opposing defenders flew by him. He passed to a teammate. Goal. Against Hoffenheim, he sprinted into space and fired the ball into the far corner with unfathomable precision. Against Freiburg, he spun twice with his foot on the ball, shaking off three defenders. When Sancho really gets going, you can hear the gasps in the audience.

Simple Joy of Playing

For as far back as he can remember, Sancho played football on the street. He would dribble across the rough pavement in Kennington, a district of south London known for concrete block buildings and youth criminality. Sancho embodies that which has gradually become more of a focus in German player development following years of professionalization: a playground mentality; the simple joy of playing.

"Everyone just wanted me to play on their team, so I just turned up at tournaments " he says, recalling the early days.

Sancho ended up in the U-9 team of FC Watford, a club northwest of London, and the team's games quickly transformed into the Sancho show. Just like he did on the streets of south London, he would nutmeg his opponents, play passes with his heel or lift the ball gently over the goalkeeper. "I'll be honest with you, Stevie Wonder could have recognized he was a special player," a youth coach at Watford told the British daily The Mirror in October.

In the football industry, those who turn heads will inevitably be approached by clubs prepared to shell out millions in the hope that today's teenager will develop into tomorrow's star. At the 2011 London Youth Games, a Manchester City scout saw Sancho for the first time. "He has been the top goal scorer in his age group every year since he joined Watford," reads a Manchester scouting report from the Football Leaks files. The player, the report notes, plays with confidence: "He single-handedly dismantled the likes of Arsenal and Chelsea on his own playing in a poor team." Manchester City wanted him, no matter how high the price.

In 2014, Manchester executives calculated that Watford was entitled to 50,667 pounds for the effort they had exerted in training Sancho. They wrote the club a letter offering exactly that amount in addition to an almost 12,000-pound "premium." Watford declined this and additional offers, but in late February 2015, the two clubs finally reached an agreement: 150,000 pounds for the 14-year-old player. Including possible bonus payments, the club pledged a package of up to 500,000 pounds if Sancho played in 10 matches with the professional team.

Circumventing Rules

In addition, the club handed Sancho's agent, Emeka Obasi, what appeared to be a scouting contract. His agency was to help Manchester City scour Central and South America for talented players, according to the document, for which the agent would be remunerated with 200,000 pounds. This precise amount, though, appears in an internal Manchester City table under the heading "Agent Fee" for the Sancho deal. The alleged "scouting services agreement" is actually "in relation to Jadon and his agent Emeka," a club employee revealed in an internal email. The contract, in other words, was apparently only meant to cover up an impermissible payment. The case demonstrates just how normal it is for clubs and agents to circumvent rules when it comes to securing top talent.

Neither Obasi nor Manchester City responded to a DER SPIEGEL query. Instead, the club merely spoke of an organized and clear "attempt to damage the club's reputation." The material, the statement said, had been hacked or stolen and taken out of context.

The context of the letter that the club wrote to Sancho's father in March 2015, however, is quite clear: "Dear Mr. Sancho, we are really pleased that your son has joined Manchester City F.C." The letter ultimately specified the salary that the club was prepared to pay the player, who was just 14 at the time, once he became a professional. It also listed the signing bonus and even the premium he could expect for matches played with the national team.

But a lawyer for the club was alarmed. After all, there are regulations in place to prevent clubs from offering such monetary incentives to minors. "I have made a couple of tweaks to make it clear that this is not in itself an offer" the lawyer wrote in an internal email. "However, there is a risk that this would still be deemed to be an inducement and therefore a breach of that rule." The Premier League recently imposed a transfer ban and a fine on FC Liverpool for similar infringements.

At press conferences, Sancho now politely dodges questions about Manchester City. But he repeatedly ran into problems in 2015 at the academy in Manchester. On one occasion, he got into an altercation with Manchester player Phil Foden and the two had to be separated. He would sometimes show up late or get into it with teachers. Homework was an issue and he also had to serve detention several times.

'Humble and Hard-Working'

Sancho "gives an impression (which may not be the case) that he is self-important and reveling in his current (relative) fame," a law firm specializing in reputation management wrote in June 2015 in an analysis of his social media accounts. Education at the football academy goes beyond sprints and dribbling -- it also seeks to ameliorate their adolescent behavior. And because they didn't feel that Sancho had become sufficiently domesticated, he became the object of intense scrutiny and efforts to bring his conduct into line. The firm had been commissioned by Manchester City to review the social media profiles of academy players, and it wasn't impressed by what it found. "There was a high level of inappropriate content posted by players which could leave them vulnerable, subject to criticism and/or to be viewed as unprofessional in their public conduct." The company noted that Sancho hadn't accepted earlier advice and that he should take an example from the way City's professional players present themselves on the internet, as "humble and hard-working."

But on the pitch, he continued to impress. Borussia Dortmund's talent scouts first took notice of Sancho during U-17 international matches in 2016. But in an interview with DER SPIEGEL, BVB Sporting Director Michael Zorc refrained from boasting about his discovery. After all, he says, Sancho's talent had been obvious to everyone. "We expressed our interest and sounded out his situation." What was Sancho's contractual situation? What were his prospects in Manchester?

Sancho was still bound by what's called a scholarship contract with Manchester until the summer of 2018. But Sancho, who was 17-years-old at the time, was impatient and wanted to train with the pros and play in the Champions League. "Age is just a number," he once said. "If you're good enough, why not?" Dortmund was able to offer him the leap into international football, whereas Manchester City apparently was not. "We give top talent the opportunity to play regularly," says Zorc. "On our team, you can be part of the starting eleven even in very important games."

Sancho terminated his scholarship contract. City's star coach Pep Guardiola complained later that Sancho stopped showing up for practice afterward. "We did absolutely everything," the coach said. "But if the player says 'no, no, no, no, no', what can we do?" Manchester City could have challenged Sancho's unilateral move to terminate his contract. But instead, the clubs reached an agreement, with BVB paying 8 million euros compensation in exchange for Manchester releasing Sancho from his contract.

Embarrassing for the Premier League

In retrospect, it is rather embarrassing for the Premier League club to have allowed one of England's greatest talents to move to the Bundesliga. In the bidding war over Sancho, City is rumored to have offered a contract worth 30,000 pounds per week. Dortmund, meanwhile, offered a gross monthly salary of 175,000 euros and a premium of 675,000 euros for staying with the team until the end of the contract. During the current season, BVB increased Sancho's salary.

In an interview, Sancho says his first really expensive purchase was a Rolex watch. For his 18th birthday, he says he ordered a "normal (Mercedes) E-Class." "Personally, I think I'm the best dressed in the dressing room" he says. Early on, Manchester City scouts determined that, "centered around football, he seems to enjoy socializing and fashion."

For Borussia Dortmund, Jadon Sancho is one of the largest transfer coups of recent years. He wears the number 7 jersey, which previously belonged to Ousmane Dembélé. One-and-a-half years ago, the French player forced Dortmund to transfer him to Barcelona, despite still being under contract with the Bundesliga team. The move did, though, earn Borussia 120 million euros. Since then, the Dortmund team has been taking pains to ensure its star players don't develop any airs. Managers have sought to strengthen team spirit during the current season through group dynamics. Now, they just have to hope that their best players don't lose their grounding.

So far, it appears that the training received at Manchester has worked. At press conferences, Sancho nods attentively, laughs and gives polite answers. "He's a popular young guy with his teammates," says Zorc. "The kind of guy who dances to his music in the dressing room and also has a few crazy ideas in his head. But he works hard and he's always completely on the ball. He's just fun."

During a round of interviews with the British media in Dortmund, he introduces himself to each person with a handshake: "Nice to meet you." Journalists are delighted, writing that "his innocence is rather endearing" and describing him as a "decent role model for any child of the 21st century." They branded his rise as the "football fairy tale of the 2010s."

The attempts to woo Sancho are only likely to increase in the coming months. The Premier League, the wealthiest league in the world, wants the star back. In view of the spiraling transfer prices on the football market, Dortmund likely stands to earn another 100 million euros should they decide to sell.

The path to another club, though, would necessarily pass through Manchester City, with the English club having negotiated several guarantees from Dortmund. Should the German team win the Bundesliga, it would have to pay Manchester a million euros. And if Borussia Dortmund decided to accept a transfer offer from a different club, they would first have to inform Sancho's former club of the pending deal. Manchester would then have the chance to make an offer as well.

And if Sancho did ultimately transfer to a third team, City would receive a share of the fee.

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