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The lost boys: World Cup spectators Götze and Sanches

June 1, 2018

Mario Götze and Renato Sanches were the breakout stars of two recent international tournaments. Both are still young and fit but will watch World Cup 2018 from afar, after missing the cut. Where did it all go wrong?

Kombibild - Renato Sanches und Mario Götze

For a number of German and Portuguese players, Saturday is a big night. Manuel Neuer needs to prove his match fitness against Austria, several of Joachim Löw's squad must impress in that match to avoid the axe on Monday and a host of Portuguese forwards will vie to bask in Cristiano Ronaldo's shadow as their country take on Belgium.

Both national teams have fresh memories of recent tournament wins but both will be without two of the key figures in those victories. Götze, who scored the winner in the 2014 World Cup final, and Sanches, the Young Player of Euro 2016, failed to make their respective squads, an unthinkable situation as recently as two years ago.

At just 25 and 20 respectively, the pair should, by common football assumptions, be in or approaching their peak years and missing out on one of the sport's grandest stages will undoubtedly hurt. 

"Of course I'm sad that I'm not participating in the World Cup, "Götze, who already has 61 German caps, recently admitted.

A long way down

But it's very difficult to argue with the decisions of either Löw or Portugal boss Fernando Santos, and, in truth, neither omission was met with a huge amount of surprise. Götze's struggles since the 2014 World Cup have been scrupulously documented. After scaling the highest peak in football at 22, he's been sliding down the mountain ever since. 

Mario Götze has struggled since returning to Borussia Dortmund
Mario Götze has struggled since returning to Borussia DortmundImage: picture-alliance/Pressefoto Robin Rudel

A promising pre-World Cup debut season at Bayern Munich preceded a decline that has become more pronounced as the seasons have passed. A metabolic illness has hampered his progress since his return to Dortmund but despite flashes of that rare vision and close control that still resides in him, four goals and nine assists in 48 games over the last two seasons is a fair reflection of a talent that, if not lost, is at least misplaced. An underwhelming tournament as a "false 9" at Euro 2016 added further grist to the mills of his detractors.

For Sanches, the fall has been faster still. Bayern were universally acclaimed for the shrewdness of snapping up the midfielder before he demonstrated a drive, ball-carrying ability and composure far beyond his 18 years. But after an indistinct first season under Carlo Ancelotti he was farmed out to Premier League club Swansea, where things went from bad to worse. The initial excitement generated by his signing soon turned to bafflement as Sanches' confidence visibly diminished by the game, before he hit a low point when stroking a pass out to an advertising board he had mistaken for a teammate.

He didn't even make Portugal's initial 35-man list for Russia and it seems he wasn't ever really in Santos' thoughts, with Sanches notable only by his omission in a list of names the coach found it hard to leave out. 

"It was, of course, difficult to leave out Eder, Nani and others who wrote the most brilliant page in the history of Portuguese football," the coach said after naming the 35. "But I have to pick the ones who best complete the jigsaw."

Renato Sanches shot to prominence in Euro 201
Renato Sanches shot to prominence in Euro 2016Image: picture alliance/Pressefoto ULMER

Still a shot at redemption

Löw at least mentioned Götze when announcing his provisional squad of 27, offering sympathy for Götze's loss of form and status. Few things can be more frustrating for footballers than the men who decide their fate feeling sorry for them.

But the fact Löw and Santos have both left the door open for their lost boys speaks to both their talent and their youth. Bayern have recently said that despite rumors linking him with his former club, Benfica, Sanches will be given a chance to rediscover his lost mojo under Niko Kovac. He will still be just 24 by the time Qatar 2024 rolls around.

Both Sanches and Götze are confidence players, though Sanches can also fall back on a physical dynamism that Götze has lost. For the German playmaker, there's some sense that a summer off might be the best thing for him. His unfortunate illness has undoubtedly contributed to his decline, and may continue to do so, but it may just be that a summer off - and away from the spotlight - will be beneficial as he tries to adapt to the latest new regime at Dortmund.

However, there are no guarantees. As is the case in the financial sector, past performance is not necessarily an indicator of future success. A few clubs may well do well to remember that when analyzing any single player who has a breakout tournament in Russia.