Speedy Goncalo Guedes has lit up La Liga. The young Portuguese winger only made his first start for Valencia—having arrived on a season-long loan from Paris Saint-Germain—towards the end of September, in a league tie against Malaga at the Mestalla. Valencia romped home 5-0, and Guedes chipped in with an audacious assist for the fifth goal.
His team-mate Rodrigo passed to him on the edge of the box. Guedes, with his back to goal, controlled it and then stabbed the ball with a backheel straight into the path of Rodrigo, who scored with a single touch.
Guedes has added another four assists and three goals—each goal better than the other—in six games, which has helped keep Valencia unbeaten and on the heels of league leaders Barcelona.
"Guedes has won over the fans even though it's a short time. He's become an idol," said El Pais journalist Salva Folgado, who reckons no player since Predrag Mijatovic has adjusted so quickly and so decisively at the club.
The iconic striker arrived in 1993 from Partizan Belgrade. "Mijatovic changed Valencia," Folgado said. "I can't think of any other player who has generated the same impact in the team—and who has adapted so rapidly—like Guedes.
"Guedes is only 20, but he's very mature. He carries himself like an adult. He's got a very sensible disposition. He takes care of himself. He's very professional. The manager Marcelino and the team's physical trainer Ismael Fernandez are very content with him. He trains well. He doesn't go out socialising to nightclubs; he stays at home. It seems like he's only interested in football."
Joao Diogo Manteigas, a TV football pundit and lawyer who works for Benfica, has followed his career from close quarters. Manteigas' brother-in-law played with Guedes at Benfica, the club that Guedes joined as an eight-year-old in 2005. Manteigas concurs with the picture painted of the player as a football obsessive.
"The kid is consumed with football," Manteigas said. "The last time I saw him, a couple of months ago, he was driving an old Audi van. It possibly belonged to his family. This kind of sums up Goncalo: he's one of the most straight-up kids there are in football. He's not your typical young football player—who's obsessed with cars, his haircut, shoes and baseball caps. Just take a look at how he dresses."
Manteigas points towards Guedes' background for clues. Guedes comes from Benavente, a small town in the heartland of Portugal about an hour from Lisbon. It's known more for bullfighting than football. "Guedes likes bullfights, which is very traditional from that area," Manteigas said. Guedes' father used to drive Guedes and his brother—who is a goalkeeper—to Benfica's youth academy for training on a daily basis.
Luis Nascimento trained Guedes at Benfica's academy. Guedes' personality made an immediate impression. He was a livewire.
"Guedes was an extremely extroverted young man, almost a hyperactive kid," Nascimento said. "He couldn't stay put, always running around. He transposed that energy to the game. He was an aggressive player, an animal in competition. He hated losing a game, even in training."
Nascimento saw in Guedes an irreverence, an ability to handle pressure that stands him in good stead in the bear pit of professional football.
"He was always a real brat," he said. "We say in Portuguese he's 'traquinas,' totally extroverted, but he was never a rude kid. He was very polite, but not an easy kid to handle. We had to help with his education, to cut the edges off him, as we always do with every kid. He was very bold on and off the pitch. He never feared his opponents. He was never afraid of making mistakes. He was ambitious. He didn't have a lot of patience for small talk in the locker room or on the pitch.
"I remember an episode when he was playing under-13 and we had a very decisive match against our rival Sporting Lisbon. Guedes was having lunch with his mates and he was relaxed, playing with the others. He never succumbed to the pressure. He was always happy. He loved to get out on the pitch and play the game. As soon as possible, he wanted the game to start.
"In that occasion, a team-mate asked him: 'Goncalo don't you feel the pressure of the match?' Guedes replied: 'It is just another match, and all I want is to play it!' He was just like that. For him playing against Sporting CP, FC Porto, FC Barcelona or Real Madrid was the same. He didn't fear his opponents. He didn't fear having the ball, taking risks and I believe that comes from his personality."
Guedes had a knack for scoring five or six spectacular goals a season, as he came up through the ranks at Benfica while invariably playing on teams with boys a year older than him.
"I remember a goal he scored against Barcelona in a tournament final," Nascimento said, "when he was under-13, where he picked the ball up in midfield and finished by striking the ball into the top corner of the net."
Benfica guarded Guedes closely. He was never loaned to another club. "He was one of the few that Benfica betted on since the very beginning," Manteigas said.
He made his debut for the first team at 17 years of age, and he became the youngest Portuguese scorer in the Champions League group stages since Cristiano Ronaldo when he scored against Atletico Madrid in September 2015, per ESPN FC's Graham Hunter. It's notable that Marcelino handed Guedes the No. 7 jersey, with all the history that number bears in Portugal following the exploits of Luis Figo and Ronaldo over the last two decades.
It was only a matter of time before Benfica would have to cash in on him. Valencia came within a whisker of signing him in August 2016.
"It was the first time that Jorge Mendes [Guedes' agent] offered him to the club," Folgado said. "Guedes was in camp with the Portugal U21 team. Guedes left with the permission of the team's management. The information I have is that he left to go to Valencia for a medical check-up."
Everything was set for him to join Los Che. The only problem was the fee, which was set at €20 million. Valencia had just spent €24 million on Ezequiel Garay, per Transfermarkt; they had also closed a deal with Eliaquim Mangala from Manchester City.
They were short the cash to sign Guedes. "[The club's owner] Peter Lim wouldn't authorise it," Folgado said. "Also they didn't want to take a risk for a player still so young. Valencia totally lost an opportunity."
Valencia missed out a second time during the January 2017 transfer window. Again Mendes offered Guedes to the club, but Paris Saint-Germain outbid them, signing him for €30 million, per Marca's Fernando Alvarez.
At Paris Saint-Germain, however, he hardly got a look-in, only managing to start a single game until the end of the season. He was too young, and, arriving midseason, he had to take his place in the queue behind other wide players like Julian Draxler and Angel Di Maria.
If Guedes continues to prosper at Valencia—where he's integrated well, and, according to Folgado, has made friendships with fellow Portuguese speakers like goalkeeper Neto and Gabriel Paulista, as well as Rodrigo, another young tyro—he'll be called back to Paris at the end of the summer where the club will take stock. Three possibilities would await him.
One, PSG have to sell him in a push to balance their books because of UEFA financial fair play regulations, and a big club like Barcelona or Real Madrid could make a swoop at a significantly higher price than the fee PSG paid to buy him originally.
Valencia—who have an option to buy Geoffrey Kongdogbia from Inter Milan for €25 million, per Reuters (h/t Marca), and are due to make further bank debt payments in June 2018, according to Folgado—would be priced out again in this market.
Two, his star will have risen so much that it is demanded he's shoehorned into an attacking lineup at PSG that already features the vaunted front three of Neymar, Edinson Cavani and Kylian Mbappe.
"There is no place for Guedes in PSG's system unless the manager Unai Emery changes his system of play to find a space for Guedes. This is a possibility," says Folgado.
Manteigas is sceptical about his prospects in Paris: "It will be very hard for him to get his place with Paris Saint-Germain—too many important players and egos. If he stays with the club, he'll be loaned again unless there's a coach at PSG that has the courage to put him in the starting 11 and he sacks some hotshot from the team."
Three, PSG bide their time and offer him back to Valencia for another loan season. "Valencia are working to get PSG to release him for another season," Folgado said. "It's practically impossible. It's utopia thinking, but they are going to try because the player is very comfortable here. In the dressing room at PSG, he is one more, but here he is a leader."
All quotes and information obtained firsthand unless otherwise indicated.
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