Thursday, November 26, 2020
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A Sporting Chance for Lisbon?

Sporting Lisbon badge (via Wikipedia)

 

Manchester United's 2019/20 UEFA Cup run came to an end despite being spearheaded by former Sporting Lisbon man Bruno Fernandes, & the final part of their season rounded out with an FA Cup exit & third place Premier League finish. So what of the fortunes of the Verde e Brancos (Green & Whites)?

  

The third most successful team in Portugal, part of a top of the tree trio also comprising Benfica & Porto, are currently going through a title drought as perilous as their finances. Years of mismanagement, culminating in the revelation of debts of 276 million Euros by 2011, add to a Primera Liga barren spell dating back from the years following their 2001-02 league win.

 

Towards the end of 2009, November to be specific, up to May of 2013, nine managers were given the job of turning things around- none of them lasted a full season. A 2015 club audit then laid bare just how bad things were off the field. The debt standing at 331 million Euros as of two years before, in comparison to 1994 showing no debt & assets of 55 million Euros at the other end of a scale spanning around twenty years.

 

Perhaps in reflection of that comparative financial health, 1995 brought with it at least some measure of success on the field with a Portuguese Cup win over Maritimo. A long time to wait after Malcolm Allison's arrival in 1981, following a short spell with Yeovil, had yielded a league & cup double at the first time of asking. The years between 1982 & 2000 would prove especially fruitless following his departure & return to England with Middlesbrough- though the former Manchester City manager would later return to Portuguese shores with Vitoria Setubal & Farense.

 

It was down to former player Augusto Inácio, who'd served at left back before retiring perhaps ominously in '82, to replicate his old boss's glories with a league title win in the 1999-2000 campaign. Although it was not enough to stop him being replaced by László Bölöni in time for the 2001-02 season, with the Romanian going on to snaffle a treble of league, cup & Portuguese Super Cup.

 

He would also promote Cristiano Ronaldo to the first team at the age of just sixteen, after being impressed with his dribbling ability following just two games for Sporting's B team.

 

The return for that show of faith was 25 games & three goals in 2002-03, after making a little bit of literal Sporting history in becoming the first player to appear for their under 16, 17, 18, B & first teams in the same season- also playing against Manchester United in a friendly marking the opening game at the new Estádio José Alvalade in August of 2003 & helping the hosts win 3-1...

 

His performance had Sir Alex Ferguson & his on-field opponents that day raving, several of them telling their manager he had to do a deal to get him to Old Trafford as soon as possible- which he did. Agreeing a fee of £12.24 million after the final whistle, with the intention of loaning him back to Sporting for a season just a year after his league début against Moreirense ended in two goals for the youngster. The temporary return never happened, for obvious reasons!

 

Another prospect tempted to follow in Ronaldo's footsteps would eventually return on loan for the 2014-15 season after leaving for 25.5 million Euros in July 2007 & becoming Ronaldo's housemate in the process, though Nani's time in England isn't anywhere near as well remembered.

 

His first Sporting appearance came as a substitute in a Champions League qualifier defeat to Udinese in August of 2005, the end of the same month seeing him make a similar cameo off the bench in the league during a 2-1 win over Maritimo.

 

After just two full seasons- his last ending in six goals from 40 games in all competitions- he was off, though he would be back & trying to find fitness following a spate of injuries within a few years.

 

As part of the deal for his return, Marcos Rojo went the other way on a permanent basis. However, the Argentine has similarly struggled in Manchester having made just 76 appearances to date, scoring one goal, since arriving in 2014- culminating in a loan return to first club Estudiantes in January of this year.

  

In two seasons with Sporting after a 2012 move from Spartak Moscow he'd managed five goals from defence in 49 games before putting in a transfer request to force through a move to the Premier League. Then Sporting president, Bruno de Carvalho, would later claim that third-party representatives had put pressure on the club to sell him for 20 million Euros.

 

de Carvalho had himself assumed the presidency of the club in 2013 following a snap election after previous incumbent Godinho Lopes resigned. His first order of business?

 

Try to do something about the mounting debt, which in a sense he did by negotiating a restructuring of the various debt payments with the creditors involved & in so doing helped pave the way for an election win four years later.

 

By the end of 2017-18, though, he was out following a series of incidents, the apex of which was an attack on the club's training ground by a 50-strong group of fans in which he was suspected to have some involvement. He had also claimed to have suspended 19 players following a UEFA Cup defeat to Atletico Madrid, though the social media post suggesting this to be the case was quickly deleted.

 

Third place in the league was deemed not good enough by those who went after the players they'd been watching & the Portuguese Cup final five days after the attack, perhaps unsurprisingly, ended in defeat & triggered quite the snap review of club affairs.

 

In the wake of the training ground incident seven players terminated their contracts with the club- Rui Patricio, William Carvalho, Gelson Martins, Rúben Ribero, Daniel Podence & Bas Dost all leaving, the Dutchman having suffered a head injury.

 

Who was the seventh? Fernandes himself, although he was persuaded to change his mind until a fee of 80 million Euros was agreed with United, 18 months later. Goalkeeper Patricio also took a punt on the Premier League with Wolves, for 18 million Euros, having seen a previous move to Molineux collapse thanks to de Carvalho, & Podence found his way to Mollineux too, following two seasons with Olympiakos.

 

The rebuilding job under current Sporting president, Frederico Varandas, is ongoing, as is the hunt for more trophies- 2018-19's Taça da Liga being their last taste of silverware (part of a domestic cup double that season, with the Taça da Liga). Whilst the cups are nothing to be sniffed at, the club will not be truly satisfied until they can end their near 20-year title drought.

 

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