Fast forward to 2021 and Sporting just won their first league title after a 19-year interlude – a period that saw the club eclipsed by Benfica and Porto and at one point staring into the financial abyss.
This season’s league title triumph, while undeniably exciting, is not only unexpected and surprising, but also bittersweet.
Entering the season, Sporting were anything but the favorite. The club are one of the top three teams in the country, with a rich history in a multitude of sports, including football, in which they are known to be a reservoir of young talent.
His football academy has developed the likes of Ronaldo, Luís Figo, Paulo Futre, Nani and Ricardo Quaresma, among other talented players. Few other clubs can boast of having produced not one, but two Ballon d’Or winners.
But heading into this season rivals Porto and Benfica had spent significantly more during the offseason. Benfica almost wowed Uruguayan star Edinson Cavani, who ended up at Manchester United. Their budgets – after many league titles, participating in European competitions, and successfully selling talented players to bigger markets for big bucks – are simply way higher than Sporting’s.
And most of it is the club’s fault.
A troubled story
After their last victory in 2002, Sporting seemed to be on the right track. The club had just won their second league title in three years, after a similar 18-year drought, and they had talented young players coming through the ranks.
The team seemed destined for a perfect season in 2005, when they hosted the UEFA Cup (now known as the Europa League). With just two games to go this season, Sporting were in first place and secured a place in the UEFA Cup final, where they would face CSKA Moscow.
That week – when he lost to Benfica 1-0 at Estádio da Luz to finish third, then 3-1 to CSKA Moscow in his own stadium, having taken a 1-0 lead in the mid- time – was just too brutal. to endure, even if you are not a fan.
Since then, the club have flirted with the title once or twice, coming close but never really deserving it and never quite doing it.
As in Germany, private investors are not allowed to hold a majority stake in Portuguese teams, so “sócios” – supporters who pay a monthly membership fee – vote to choose a club president every five years.
While this democratic system has its advantages – allowing fans to get involved – it has one big downside: when results don’t come, it’s incredibly difficult to unify the club.
Over the past 20 years, different factions have fought for control of Sporting, rarely taking into account what the silent majority of fans actually want. Prioritizing short-term success over long-term goals, most have pushed the club further into the abyss, increasing their debt and worsening their finances.
The darkest time in sport came when members of one of the team’s official fan groups – empowered by a controversial administration – broke into the club’s grounds and assaulted the soccer team in 2018. , after she failed to qualify for the Champions League.
Many players, including many rising stars, have left the club and joined other teams, mostly overseas. Only a few, including current Manchester United star Bruno Fernandes, have agreed to re-sign and stay at the club.
To many, it seemed like there was no going back, when half the squad left an incident that the majority of over three million fans considered heinous.
Since then, Sporting have been forced to go back to what they did best – developing talented footballers. While there were signs of things to come, no one could have predicted that the strategy would soon reap rewards.
A real youth project – in every way
At the end of the 2019/20 season, Sporting lost a key game against Benfica and finished fourth, behind SC Braga. Although he played well against rivals Lisbon, youth and inexperience saw the club lose 2-1 due to a late winner by current Tottenham striker Carlos Vinicius in the 88th minute.
Young manager Rúben Amorim, who was brought in from Braga mid-season for a record price, had a rough start with the squad and failed to secure third place. Given his recent history and the squad he had, nothing seemed to suggest the Leões would be contenders this year.
The offseason brought a surprising and refreshing acquisition policy. While rivals have spent huge sums on foreign talent, Sporting have taken a more focused approach, seeking a combination of youth and experience to fill the squad’s gaps.
Most of the newcomers had previous experience in the Portuguese league or similar competitions so as not to waste time adjusting to the style of play.
Key signings included 22-year-old Pedro Gonçalves for € 6.5million ($ 7.9million) from Famalicão, Euro 2016 champion João Mário on a one-year loan from Inter Milan and 21-year-old Spain winger Pedro Porro on a two-year loan from Manchester City.
Gonçalves is currently the joint top scorer in La Liga NOS; Mário is a key starter and there is talk of a permanent move this summer; Porro has proven to be one of the best, if not the best, comebacks in the league, earning him his debut for the Spanish national team.
Nonetheless, it was a difficult start to the season amid the Covid-19 outbreak, which included a surprise Europa League elimination at the hands of Austria’s Lask Linz. But Sporting used this to his advantage. While Benfica and Porto struggled to juggle all competitions, Sporting’s tight schedule gave them plenty of time to recover between matches.
It’s a surprising consistency that propelled the team to their first trophy of the season – winning the League Cup against Braga in January – and propelled them throughout the season.
At times self-indulgent, half-hearted and downright cynical, Sporting have scored more than three goals on just three occasions and have often won by the skin of their teeth, scoring several late wins with strikes in time out.
The team are counting on their solid defense, with just 15 goals conceded in 32 games – by far the best defensive record in the league. This is one of the reasons the team remains unbeaten with two games to go.
It’s hard not to be excited about the title and what it stands for – the promise of more success on the horizon, anchored in a rising generation bursting into seniors and increased cash flow through a comeback. to the Champions League and any sales of players.
After years of being overshadowed by its more successful rivals, it finally feels like the time has come for Sporting to party.
Yet everything is still bittersweet. The world is still in the midst of a deadly pandemic, which has devastated families, friends, jobs and businesses. It has separated people even from those hobbies, like soccer, which usually help people put their worries aside temporarily.
Every year, fans of the winning team flock to the streets of the country. In Lisbon, Benfica and Sporting generally resume the Marquis de Pombal roundabout. The area is usually packed with fans at a massive street party, which players and coaching staff later join.
Many sports fans wouldn’t have had the chance to celebrate there before, most of them too young when the team won the title – some of the team’s current players weren’t even born the last time. it happened.
It was their year, but Covid-19 hindered him. With the social distancing restrictions still in place, it’s hard to envision the celebration that many have dreamed of for so long.
Yet while different, just ask any Sporting fan and they’ll still wear the jersey, don the scarf, and sing the night away. This title has been going on for 19 years and even the pandemic will not stop the party.
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