Sport

The making of Matheus Nunes: ‘He has a gift. We saw something special’

It was in Ericeira, a coastal resort 50km north-west of Lisbon renowned as a staple on the world surfing circuit, that Matheus Nunes, Wolves’ club-record £38m signing and one of the Premier League’s most exciting talents, learned to graft. Faced with rejection in his pursuit of turning professional, an 18-year-old Nunes juggled playing for fifth-tier Ericeirense with serving pastel de nata in Pão da Vila, a local bakery.

“I was on my feet for several hours and then I would train at the end of the day,” he said three years ago. “It wasn’t easy. I had to wake up at 5am. I didn’t have a driving licence so I would cycle there, or I would have to ask someone for a lift. By the end of three or four months I was exhausted from working and playing at the same time. So nowadays I value what I have more.”

Initially there was frustration at Ericeirense because, after relocating from Rio de Janeiro aged 12 with his mother and stepfather, Nunes was ineligible to play matches in his first year because the club required his father’s signature to be registered. In that time Nunes would only train and it quickly became clear to his coach, Ruben Franco, that he had a special player on his hands.

“He is a Brazilian guy, so he had an amazing relationship with the ball but he also had a really good intensity,” Franco says. “Even with aggressive and much more experienced players, he was amazing. We put together some clips of him and started to send them to European clubs. I was like a crazy guy because I was saying: ‘This is not a normal player, please look at him because he is different,’ and I couldn’t take him to the next phases.”

A transfer to third-tier Oriental broke down but a move to second-tier Estoril, where the attacking midfielder was a teammate of the Wolves defender Toti Gomes, proved significant. He shone in victory at Sporting’s José Alvalade Stadium and when Alexandre Santos, then the under-23s coach at Estoril, left for the same role at the Lisbon club he was quick to bring Nunes with him.

“It is quite amazing how much life can change in a year,” says Franco, who coached Nunes from under-13s through to the first team. Ericeirense are set to receive £1m from the Wolves deal and plans to improve facilities and invest in a new stadium have understandably been accelerated in recent weeks.

Nunes was the most-fouled player in Primeira Liga last season and lit up the regional leagues in Lisbon. “Before he received the ball he was always looking where he could go next and he always passed to the other guys easily because he saw the game very clearly,” Franco says. “He could be sitting in midfield and then in two or three seconds be on the edge of the box because he has a special gift to see the free space with a high intensity. We saw something special.”

In 2016 Franco went with Nunes as he spent a week on trial with Leicester Under-23s but nothing materialised. Unsuccessful trials at Benfica, Braga and Lille followed. “It was: ‘OK, I’m going to keep life moving and not wait for the opportunity to come to me,’” Franco says.

Since then Nunes has been showered with praise from everyone from Pep Guardiola, who called him “one of the best players in the world”, to Federico Varandas. The Sporting president insisted, so highly he regarded Nunes, that one day Nunes’s sale would single-handedly pay for the €15m compensation the club had to pay Braga to appoint Rúben Amorim as manager two years ago. At the time Nunes had not played a first-team game for Sporting but he went on to star as Amorim guided the club to their first Portuguese league title in 19 years last May. And the €45m deal with Wolves means they could have paid for Amorim three times over.

On debut at Tottenham last Saturday he was part of an all-Portuguese front six, which included Gonçalo Guedes, another recent marquee signing connected to Jorge Mendes’s Gestifute agency, who joined from Valencia for £27.5m. Nunes is doubtless aware of the rise of Diogo Jota, who earned a move to Liverpool after three years at Molineux, and spoke to Rúben Neves, João Moutinho and José Sá, teammates for Portugal, before signing a five-year contract.

“They all said great stuff about the club and that I should come,” Nunes said. “I wanted to play in the Premier League. I think it is the right next step. I want to help the club achieve their goals and reach as high as we can.”

Nunes scored his first Portugal goal in March, in their World Cup playoff semi-final against Turkey, and is expected to be in their squad in Qatar. He has already brought a welcome thrust to Wolves and those in Ericeira – residents and former customers alike – will keep an eye on him as he continues to progress on the biggest stage.

“When he had free time at Sporting he would come back to the village,” Franco says. “He is the wonderful kid of the village. Everyone knows his story and knows him. The beautiful thing is that guy that I saw at 13 is the same guy that I see now.”

For Nunes, the focus is on helping Wolves record their first league win of the season at home to Newcastle on Sunday. His stepfather, who is from Sunderland, is the reason his English is so impressive. His godfather, Humberto Salvador, also the businessman behind the bakery, accompanied him to England to complete the deal. “My colleagues helped me a lot in the beginning; I didn’t know the name of the cakes nor how to use the machines,” Nunes said.

His days serving pastries may be in the past but Wolves and Lage will hope the dynamic midfielder proves their missing ingredient.