Faro, Portugal – The unthinkable became a reality only two weeks after Benfica celebrated its second successive title in Lisbon’s Marques de Pombal Square.
In an unprecedented move, Jorge Jesus, the man largely responsible for the club’s return to domestic glory, jumped ship for bitter rivals, Sporting Clube Portugal.
Jesus’ potential departure from Benfica was no secret.
When negotiations over a new contract stalled over a salary dispute, there was little doubt that plenty of clubs, especially deep-pocketed foreign ones, would be vying for the services of a coach who led the Eagles to ten trophies in six years, including three Primeira Liga titles and a Portuguese Cup.
But no one imagined that domestic antagonist, Sporting, would become a legitimate suitor.
After years of mismanagement, current Sporting president, Bruno de Carvalho, steered the club towards financial stability over the last few years by implementing a philosophy that underscored the importance of the Alcochete academy – an assembly line that produced players such as Luis Figo, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Ricardo Quaresma – as well as a frugal approach to new signings. Thus, a play for a coach who had plenty of wealthy admirers (including Paris St. Germain, with whom Jesus had been persistently linked) was implausible, at best.
Or so it was thought.
As it happens, a stream of investments from Angola and Equitorial Guinea enabled Carvalho to lure Jesus four miles down the road from the Stadium of Light to Alvalade, much to the shock of those who view such cross-town switches as unforgivable acts of treason.
Of course, among die-hard club supporters, the Jorge Jesus to Sporting narrative has centered around his long awaited return to the club where he not only began his playing career, but for whom his father played in the 1940’s, and not the recent influx of cash.
Tom Kundert, of Portugoal.net scoffs at that idea. An expert on Portuguese soccer, Kundert claims, “Sporting fans tend to romanticize” the emotional ties between the coach and his new club. The fact that Jesus “felt pushed out” of Benfica after club president, Luis Filipe Vieira, refused to increase his wages, and a reported offer of a six million Euro a year salary (around seven million dollars) from the green half of Lisbon had more to do with what is arguably the most controversial managerial switch in European football.
Jesus’ arrival at Sporting marks a departure from the status-quo, where Carvalho ultimately made the final decisions on all soccer matters – an issue that apprently played a big part in the dismissal of former coach, Marco Silva, even after he pulled off an unlikely comeback win against Braga to lift the Portuguese Cup in May.
The former Benfica coach has been given complete control over the club’s soccer structure. That includes anything having to do with player development at the academy level, player signings, and even the club’s physical infrastructure. Jesus has also been given far more money to work with than any of his more recent predecessors.
That omnipotence is already paying dividends. Sporting has enjoyed one of its most active transfer windows, attracting the type of players that have more commonly landed at Benfica and FC Porto, either due to their high salaries or competitive expectations. The likes of Teo Gutierrez, Bryan Ruiz, and Alberto Aquilani, have signed for Sporting in part because of the reputation that Jesus earned while at Benfica, and bring the sort of pedigree and experience that has been lacking since the club last won the title in 2001/2002.
The club has also managed to hold on to its most sought after products, such as William Carvalho, who has long been linked with a big money move to a European giant. Having witnessed Jesus’ impact on the careers of some his former players, many of whom have gone on to make big money moves to some of Europe’s top clubs (think Angel Di Maria, David Luiz, Fabio Contrão, and Enzo Perez), Sporting’s “pearls,” as they’re known in Portugal, are more likely to resist any poachers with offers of better contracts in more glamorous leagues.
The massive financial investment in Jesus signals Bruno de Carvalho’s intent to finally have Sporting compete on equal footing with Benfica and FC Porto, and by all indications the coach’s short tenure appears to be guiding the club in that direction. Nevertheless, given Sporting’s failures over the past three decades, there is a fear that pushing the club to its financial limits could once again plunge it into distress, as was the case under Godinho Lopes’ presidency, when spending was indiscriminate.
Pedro Varela, who runs Bancada de Leão, a prominent Sporting blog, is quick to remind people that spending has always been a concern for Sporting fans, and that trophies dictate financial shrewdness. “We always worry if we pay too much or too little. Ultimately, only the end of the season will determine that, and whether we won the championship.”
He is certain, however, that this will be the most important season of Bruno de Carvalho’s presidency. “This [the hiring of Jorge Jesus] is his decisive play.”
For as long as anyone can remember, Sporting’s season will only be regarded as a success if Jesus guides the team to a league title. Anything less will smack of disappointment, if not failure.
Still, before the Lisbon Lions embark on a quest to win their first league title in fourteen years, Jesus must face his old team in the Super Cup on Sunday, in his very first competitive game wearing Sporting colors.
There could be no more fitting start for world soccer’s latest Judas.
Follow Eric Krakauer on Twitter @bigsoccerheadny