This article first appeared in Football.com
“It can only get better.”
The hopeful axiom is one that has become quite popular among Sporting Lisbon fans. After enduring the worst season in its history, the Lisbon Lions are about to embark on a new season that will serve, if nothing else, to restore some dignity.
Anguish is an all too familiar feeling for Sporting fans. Even though the club is one of Portugal’s “big three”, Sporting has only won the league three times since the 1981-82 season. During that same time period, Benfica and Porto, the other members of the big three, have collected twenty-eight championships between them, with the northerners asserting their dominance over the past decade with eight trophies.
Sporting has remained one of the big three largely because it has consistently finished the season in the top three. That, however, may be a thing of the past since the club has only reached the podium once in the last four years. Last season, Sporting had a precipitous fall, finishing the season in seventh, flirting with relegation at one point – an almost surreal turn of events.
There’s plenty of debate concerning the exact reasons for Sporting’s abrupt decline; nevertheless, there’s little doubt Godinho Lopes’ presidency was at its root.
According to Pedro Varela, a prominent Sporting blogger at Bancada de Leão, Lopes showed “complete administrative incompetence.” During his term, Sporting spent record sums on new and ultimately failed signings, hired and fired coaches, all the while managing to bring in some of the lowest attendance revenues in club history.
Varela points out that the compounding of Lopes’ various mistakes led to an inevitable collapse, but he believes that the first and biggest mistake was firing Domingos Paciencia only nine months into his tenure. Domingos was brought in to initiate a three year project that would eventually transform Sporting into a contender, after he led Sporting Braga to its best ever league finish, as well as the Europa League final (where he was defeated by FC Porto, the club where he made his name as a striker, and where he began his coaching career).
“It didn’t make sense for Lopes to fire Domingos, when he had consistently claimed that he was the right man to lead the club forward,” Varela says. “Either Lopes didn’t believe in what he was doing, or it was sheer incompetence.”
Sacking Domingos clearly destabilized the squad. While results left something to be desired, Domingos was well respected by the players, and there was a belief that he could navigate the club through turbulent waters, as he had done during his first season at Braga.
Domingos was replaced by Sporting favorite, Sa Pinto. Pinto, a member of Portugal’s Golden Generation, brought the kind of grit and enthusiasm that had made him a popular player. Initially, the move appeared to galvanize the team, prompting a deep run in the Europa League that included the improbable ousting of Manchester City. But cracks began to appear when Pinto’s willingness and drive couldn’t mask his tactical ineptitude, which was on full display when Sporting was defeated by Academica de Coimbra in the Portuguese Cup final.
Neither of Sa Pinto’s successors were able to right the ship. By the time Franky Vercauteren took over from interim, Oceano, the relationship between Godinho Lopes and the club’s supporters had deteriorated so much that most of their frustration was taken out on the players. As a result, player morale reached an all-time low, and the pressure to produce on the field became overwhelming. The problem was also exacerbated by Lopes’ financial blunders, which translated into delayed wages, as well as the non-payment of bonuses many of the players were contractually entitled to. Varela claims that Emiliano Insua’s transfer to Atletico Madrid materialized in part because the deal included the payment of outstanding bonuses.
Lopes was forced out after an emergency general assembly was held, and Bruno de Carvalho – an outspoken critic of Lopes’ policies – was elected to replace him.
Since taking over, Carvalho has had to essentially restructure every facet of the club, but the priority has been to balance the budget by cutting spending. That has meant that Sporting has had to become a selling club. Fan favorites, Ricky van Wolfswinkel and Stijn Schaars have been sold to Norwich City and PSV Eindhoven, respectively, and other big earners that failed to leave their marks, like Oguchi Onyewu and Khalid Boulahrouz are being actively shopped around.
By default, Sporting now has to rely on the very institution that helped the club become a household name, and that went largely ignored by Lopes: the Alcochete Youth Academy.
Sporting’s academy has long produced some of the world’s most exciting players. In fact, the club can boast that it is the only one to produce two FIFA World Players of the Year, in Luis Figo and Cristiano Ronaldo. Other famous alumni include Paulo Futre, Simao Sabrosa, Ricardo Quaresma, Nani, Joao Moutinho, and Miguel Veloso, just to name a few.
Varela is excited about the academy’s promise. “If we have one of the best footballing academies in the world, we must rely on it,” he says. “The young players have won at every youth level in the club. It’s not a guarantee that they will deliver in the first team, but it is possible, and we have to bet on that.”
Of course, there are risks associated with the hurried inclusion of youth players in the first team. While they might be talented enough to break into the squad, their lack of experience means that they are less equipped to deal with the pressure that comes with playing for a big club. Additionally, given the club’s financial restraints, there’s always the threat that some of Europe’s biggest clubs will poach the most promising players, which is what happened with Cristiano Ronaldo after he humiliated Manchester United’s back-line in a preseason friendly, at the tender age of eighteen.
In regards to the first problem, the hope is that the few seasoned veterans that remain at the club will help the youngsters adapt. Club captain, and Portuguese National Team goalkeeper, Rui Patricio, is one of them, but some believe his days at the club are numbered, given his desire to play for one of Europe’s giants. There are others, such as Fabian Rinaudo and Diego Capel; still, Varela believes that the answer lies with the fans, who must lower their expectations for the time being. He quotes Carvalho, stating, “You don’t go from the worst season in history to the best, in one year.”
Insofar as the poaching is concerned, Carvalho has spent much of the summer renewing academy players’ contracts, and including what can only be described as ludicrous release clauses, many of which are as high as sixty million Euros. It’s doubtful that suitors will be willing to pay that kind of money, but the release clauses place Sporting in a more comfortable negotiating position.
The one hiccup so far has been the protracted Bruma affair. Bruma, arguably the most talented player in the academy’s current crop, has taken Sporting to court, claiming that his contract with the Lisbon Lions has expired, and he is free to talk to other clubs, as a result. The episode has disturbed the club’s preseason, and is a perfect example of how easily young players can become unsettled by the rumored interest of bigger teams.
For Varela, the Bruma situation has only one possible resolution: his departure. “Even if Sporting win the case, Bruma will not win over the supporters. Fans rarely forgive these situations, especially when it has to do with money.”
One only hopes that Sporting’s supporters will be less temperamental about results.
Sporting’s preseason has been a positive one, ending with an emphatic 3-0 win over a strengthened Fiorentina. All signs seem to suggest that new coach, Leonardo Jardim, is the right man to rebuild the squad with his strong emphasis on tactical discipline, and willingness to blood young talent.
Sporting supporters are prone to cynicism, and who can blame them? The last three decades have hardly been easy, and this season will prove just as trying. Nevertheless, as a new chapter begins in the Alvalade section of Lisbon, there is a lot to look forward to, once again.