Matheus Nunes: From working in a bakery to becoming Wolves' record signing
Last updated on .From the section Wolves
Sporting Lisbon boss Ruben Amorim had a peculiar way of encouraging Matheus Nunes during training sessions.
Amorim would often approach the young Portugal midfielder and tell him he needed to work harder than his colleagues. The reason was simple: Nunes had to pay for his manager's signing.
He was joking, albeit perhaps not entirely.
Having taken the unprecedented gamble of paying a fee of 10m euros for a coach whose top-flight experience was close to none, club president Frederico Varandas made a bold prediction as he denied any concern about the finances of the deal.
"I have absolutely no doubt that Nunes alone will pay for Amorim. You can write it down," he said in an interview with Canal 11 in May 2020.
It was some responsibility for a boy who, until the age of 19, had only played in lower leagues and was yet to make his senior debut for the Lisbon team.
But Varandas couldn't have been more right.
A month later, Nunes would feature in the Portuguese league for the first time - the start of an upward trajectory that would prompt Wolverhampton Wanderers to break their transfer record to sign the 23-year-old for £38m this summer.
In just over two years, he went from a late bloomer to a player hailed by Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola as "one of the best in the world" and set to be part of Portugal's World Cup squad in November.
"We heard a lot of depreciatory comments questioning why we were investing in a kid with no previous career. But we knew those people were wrong," Alexandre Santos, who coached Nunes both at Estoril and Sporting and now works at Petro de Luanda, tells BBC Sport.
"He hit the ground running. He was not only playing well; he had instantly become our under-23 side's best player, leaving highly rated youngsters like Daniel Braganca and Bruno Paz behind.
"I remember that we had a conversation shortly after he arrived at the club and I asked him to be patient. He responded: 'I have all the patience in the world, Mister. It was so hard for me to get here that I'm in no rush.'"
The Brazil-born sensation waited until Wolves came knocking last week. He's now expected to start his first home Premier League game this Sunday against Newcastle.
Leicester let him slip from their grasp
Nunes didn't have it easy growing up in Rio de Janeiro and, for some time, his mother Catia Nunes feared he could have lost his way.
"My mom still says she doesn't know how I never became a thief or a drug dealer," he told Sporting TV. "I was a bit of a nomad in Brazil - I moved house 10 times and even lived in a favela. I was 13 when I came to Portugal."
It was then that the midfielder started his career with Ericeirense - a semi-professional club from the seaside town of Ericeira, where his family had chosen to move. Despite his clear potential, he spent all his formative years with them, unable to attract interest from elsewhere.
It's not that he didn't try - Benfica, Braga, Lille and even Leicester City invited him for trials.
"He trained with Leicester's under-23 side for about a week but, in the end, they said that he probably wasn't what they were looking for. They preferred stronger, faster and more 'vertical' players. He was very skinny, so they promised to keep him on the radar and that was it," recalls Ruben Franco, a former coach who accompanied him.
"At least he had the chance to take pictures with Jamie Vardy, N'Golo Kante and Robert Huth. They would win the Premier League that season."
Under pressure to bring money home, Nunes then found a job serving coffee and pastries at a local bakery.
"That was a time when he was doubting himself and wondering whether he had the talent to make it as a pro. He earned about 150 euros a month as a footballer and needed more to help his family," explains Franco.
"He once said: 'My dream is to live from football. If I achieve that, I'll be fulfilled.' He probably is now."
'He represents the beauty of football'
It took longer than it usually does for most elite footballers, but after leaving Ericeirense for Estoril in mid-2018 and then six months later joining Sporting, Nunes finally got to where he had always wanted to be.
Once given a chance, he quickly made up for the lost time at Alvalade.
In Sporting's title-winning campaign in 2020-21, the former bakery boy scored crucial goals against Benfica and Braga and made a regular impact off the bench.
The following season, he broke into the XI after Joao Mario's switch to cross-city rivals Benfica and didn't look back. He impressed so much that he ended up dragging Brazil and Portugal into a fight over his international future.
Ultimately, the Portuguese won it and secured a footballer who remains as hard-working and competitive on the pitch as he was back in Ericeira.
He has seen a bit of everything in life and will bring that experience to Molineux.
"It's not every day that you see someone with his youth career go as far as he did, but that's the beauty of football," says Santos. "He represents it."
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Well done BBC, exactly the sort of article you should be writing.
Up we go again, come on me babbies!
Best of luck to him, hopefully he inspires other people to do the same.