Wednesday , 22 March 2023

Nineteen years without a win. How Sporting went to the long-awaited championship

When the referee signalled the end of the Sporting and Boavista match at Jose Alvalada, the stands were empty, but there was no silence. Fireworks were already exploding in the sky, and thousands of fans were shouting outside the stadium. President Frederico Varandas embraced others with tears in his eyes.

“Sporting” still managed — champions of Portugal. The last time he won, a young 17-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo learned the basics of football at the academy.

19 years of waiting

Portuguese football has always been divided into three grandees — the so-called Os Três Grandes, or “big three”. Sporting, Benfica, Porto.

In the history of Primeira Liga, only two other clubs have ever been champions-Belenenses (1945/46) and Boavista (2000/01). Only five other clubs have ever finished second.

But in the last four decades, the “troika” has gradually turned into a “deuce”, as Porto and Benfica have won 35 of the 38 titles. It was only during three years at the beginning of the new century that when Boavista and Sporting took the gold, the duopoly was broken.

Sporting did not win, but it did not lose its importance. The army of fans did not go away, and the “ultras” remained a force, as always. Several cups were won, and between 2005 and 2009, the Green-whites lost four consecutive years in the Portuguese Cup final to Porto.

The last league triumph came in 2002 when former Porto player Mario Jardel scored 42 goals. After that, 16 people became coaches, but in vain: Fernando Santos, Carlos Carvalhal, Leonardo Jardim, Marc Silva and Jorge Jesus could not do anything.

The Age of Chaos

In the 2012–13 season, Sporting finished seventh in the table — the worst result in the club’s history. It was so bad that Bruno di Carvalho, a controversial member of two “ultras” groups who bore the nickname “Donald Trump of the world of football”, was elected president.

The character, known for his tirades, reached the height of his fame in May 2018, when 50 ultras stormed into the club’s training base, attacking coach Jesus and the players. The fans’ reaction was understandable: tired of the passivity of their idols, and they were even angrier after Carvalho suspended 19 players of the base for behaving like “spoiled” children.”

Bruno de Carvalho - Sporting CP

As a result, in that season, Sporting flew past the second line and a place in the Champions League, passing ahead of Benfica.

It soon turned out that the president not only did nothing to prevent the attack, he even promoted it and allegedly allowed the ultras to destroy justice. After this discovery, di Carvalho was under house arrest. He was charged with no less than 99 charges, including aiding and abetting terrorism and kidnapping. But he was released due to lack of evidence.

In July 2019, he was fired, and after that, many prominent players left the team. The catalyst was Raphael Leau, who broke his contract. Many others followed.

The new president — new hopes

The new president was a more strict Frederico Varandas, an ex-military doctor who served in Afghanistan and later worked in the club’s infirmary. The club was dying before our eyes.

Frederico Varandas - Sporting CP

But this era was no longer so turbulent, and the club began to recover. Rafinha was bought for just 6.5 million, while Bruno Fernandes was rapidly gaining momentum. The “green and white” won the Portuguese League Cup and the Portuguese Cup and finished third in the championship in 2019.

After that, Rafinha was sold, followed by Fernandes, who became the most expensive player in Sporting history. But the finances were so bad that it was impossible to invest this money in new signings. Last season seemed like the beginning of the end because it all started with a humiliating defeat to Benfica with a score of 5:0. Coach Marcel Keizer, who won a couple of cups, was fired almost immediately and replaced by Jorge Manuel Rebelo Fernandes, known simply as Silas. It lasted less than six months.

The appearance of Ruben Amorim

“Ruben Amorim will need some serious help,” Silas said after his tenth defeat in 28 games. He did not believe that the new coach would be able to achieve anything at this club.

Nineteen years without a win. How Sporting went to the long-awaited championship

The new coach, who won the title at Benfica while still a player, took a risk by leaving Braga. And Sporting itself was forced to pay as much as 10 million euros in compensation for the specialist — thus, Amorim became the third most “expensive” coach in the history of world football. Tom Kundert of World Soccer Magazine called the appointment “a complete lunacy” at the time.

Rúben Amorim - Frederico Varandas

It was understandable: 10 million is a significant chunk of the club’s budget, and all of it went to a young 35-year-old coach who played only 13 matches at the top level.

Of course, he was excellent, and Braga won 10 of 13 matches, but whatever it was, the decision could cost Sporting a vast amount.

It all started well, with a 2:0 victory over Avesh. But soon, a pandemic broke out, and even the president had to leave his duties for a while and return to the medical profession. In the summer, football returned, and Sporting continued to show good results, even issuing a series of seven games without defeat. But the season ended in the traditional fiasco with Porto and Benfica.

The final was not happy — fourth place behind Braga, the former club of the new coach.

The season that changed everything

Leeds finally returned to the Premier League, and Liverpool won the league, but these events were held in silence and without spectators. So is Sporting, whose best season has been marred by the pandemic. He, like the others, was shaken by the sudden changes, but while Benfica and Porto were downright losing before their eyes, the blue-and-whites looked very confident.

But do not attribute their success to the poor form of their opponents — the “green and white” were objectively no worse than the previous champions, even in their best seasons. Twenty-five wins seven draws, and zero losses — the statistics of a real winner. Benfica paid a lot for the purchase of Pedrigno, Everton and Darwin Nunes and almost poached Edinson Cavani, while the world-famous Jan Vertonghen and Nicolas Otamendi played in defence. She was ready for the challenge.

Pedro Gonçalves - Sporting CP

Porto showed real class in the Champions League, knocking out Juventus in the process. With such opponents, it was difficult, and Sporting was very smart: there was not much money to spend, but successful deals for Wendel and Marcos Acuña allowed us to save a little. As a result, the team was strengthened by Paulinho, who showed himself very well at Braga. It cost the club 14 million euros. But the significant boost was Pedro Goncalves, an ex-Famalikan and Wolverhampton Wanderers player.

It wasn’t easy without Bruno, but somehow Goncalves managed to replace him completely. At the age of 22, he showed an incredible game, scoring 18 goals. It was bought for 6.5 million euros, and now its market price is several times more.

You can praise Paulinho and Goncalves, but the main stars were the defenders. After the pandemic, Amorim switched to a compact 3–4‑3 scheme, thanks to which the team conceded only 15 goals in 32 games, leaving the goal intact 20 times.

Once belittled by President De Carvalho and remembered only for his mistakes in England, Captain Sebastian Coates was unrecognizable. At the same time, Manchester City loanee Pedro Porro can already expect a call-up to the Spanish national team ahead of Euro 2020.

Team sport - Protective equipment in gridiron football

“We still haven’t realized what we’ve achieved. During the year, many people believed in us and those who worked with us. It’s an incredible feeling, and in many years people will remember this moment, ” Coates said on the night when the championship was finally taken. While the players were celebrating, the Portuguese capital was under siege by fans who clashed with the position.

And even if everything was not perfect, and even if the match with Benfica, which was supposed to be one of the most exciting derbies in history, ended in defeat, and even if Amorim already receives an offer from a variety of clubs, Sporting still believe in the best.

“Next — the Champions League. This year we have suffered, and next year we will suffer even more, but we are ready. I will coach Sporting. I have a contract, and I am happy here, ” Amorim said.

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