SPORTING CLUBE DE Portugal are back on top for the first time since 2002, clinching their 19th league title with a 1-0 victory against Boavista. The fireworks were hitting the Lisbon night air from the start of the game – the championship wasn’t a foregone conclusion while Porto were still in with a chance, but since November, it had looked very likely that the duopoly was over – for now. Sporting now face their local rivals, Benfica, on May 15 and who could blame them if they didn’t feel just a little smug?
It’s been something of a turnaround for Sporting, who just three years ago, had to contend with a large group of “fans” ransacking their training ground and attacking players, coaches and training staff. At least one of them has said he feared for his life the day discontentment boiled over. Some players decided to terminate their contracts with the club after that incident and it also led to the removal of club president Bruno de Carvalho, a notorious character known as the “Donald Trump of Portuguese football”.
Carvalho was replaced by Federico Varandas, who vowed to change the ethos of the club, concentrating on the development of young players – the Sporting squad is one of the youngest in the Primeira Liga and they have more club-trained players than any of their domestic rivals. They also have one of the lowest levels of foreign players and are ranked among the top six “stepping stone” clubs that feed the top five leagues with talent. Portugal’s top clubs have long prioritised player trading as a key source of revenue generation. Varandas was very emotional at the final whistle, victory in the Estádio José Alvalade justifying the strategy he implemented.
For those that don’t like to see domestic football dominated by one or two clubs, Sporting’s success is a triumph for footballing democracy. Benfica and Porto have presided over football for decades, but in the past 20 years, nobody else has had a look-in. Not that the league title has ever been anything over than a battle between the two cities, of the 87 seasons, Benfica have won 37, Porto 29 and Sporting 19. Belenenses of Lisbon and Porto’s Boavista have won just one apiece. No other league has been so polarised for such a length of time.
But for Sporting to break the stranglehold is no mean feat. In 2019-20, they finished fourth, 22 points behind champions Porto and were pushed into that fourth spot by Braga on goal difference. Sporting lost their star player, Bruno Fernandes, who was sold to Manchester United for over € 50 million in January 2020. The club’s alumni also includes Luis Figo and Cristiano Ronaldo.
The change has been fairly dramatic. Porto appointed 36 year-old Braga coach Rúben Amorim as coach in March 2020 and they lost just two of their last 11 league games in 2019-20. With 32 games played, Sporting are unbeaten this term and are on course to become only the fifth team to go through a Portuguese league campaign without defeat. Benfica did it in 1972-73 and 1977-78 and Porto achieved the feat in 2010-11 and 2012-13. Amorim is seen by many as the next big Portuguese manager, following in the footsteps of José Mourinho, Nuno Espirito Santo and Jorge Jesus.
Amorim changed Sporting’s fortunes with some bargain buys. The club signed Atlético Madrid’s 33 year-old goalkeeper, Antonio Adán, on a free transfer. He has proved to be an excellent acquisition, for Adán has kept 19 clean sheets. In fact, defence has been the strong point for Sporting, who have conceded just 15 goals in 32 games. The biggest outlay was the € 16 million paid to Braga for Paulinho in February 2021. In total, Sporting have spent the equivalent of £ 26 million but they also received £ 43 million for players sold. As a comparison, Benfica spent £ 95 million and received £ 70 million and Porto paid out £ 20 million and recouped £ 68 million. Sporting’s strategy was targeted and economical. Pedro Gonçalves, who is the Primeira Liga’s top scorer, was signed for € 6.5 million from Famalicão, international João Mário joined from Inter Milan on loan and wing back Pedro Porro arrived from Manchester City on a two-year loan.
Amorim’s team have now qualified for the group stage of the 2021-22 UEFA Champions League, which means a cash windfall for the club. Their last accounts revealed that revenues totalled € 93 million and that their wage bill consumed 76% of that. The club has a high level of net debt – in 2019 amounting to € 230 million – and very little cash. The Champions League will help that situation.
In the meantime, Sporting’s fans are celebrating a victory that has been 19 years in the making. Despite the financial limitations, the future looks pretty good. Over at the Estádio da Luz and in Porto, they’re smarting!