When the referee’s whistle brought an end to Sporting Club de Portugal’s 1-0 victory over Boavista at the Estadio Jose Alvalade, the stands were empty but the scene was anything but silent.
Amid bangs of fireworks, the PA system at its fullest and thousands of supporters celebrating outside, club president Frederico Varandas was embraced by those around him in his executive box. He tearfully shooed the hugs away allowing himself a moment to take it all in.
Sporting had done it. Champions of Portugal. The last time they held that title, a 17-year-old named Cristiano Ronaldo was making a name for himself in the academy but was yet to make his senior debut – that’s how long it’s been.
A 19-year wait
The landscape of Portuguese football has forever been dominated by ‘Os Três Grandes‘ (The Big Three) – Sporting and Benfica from Lisbon, and Porto.
Just two other clubs in the history of the Primeira Liga have won the title – Belenenses (1945-46) and Boavista (2000-01) – while only five other clubs, on just eight occasions, have even finished as runners-up.
Increasingly over the past four decades, the big three has looked closer to a big two, with Porto and Benfica winning 35 of the last 38 titles dating back to the time West Ham legend Malcolm Allison led Sporting to the title in 1982.
Only during a three-year period at the turn of the century, with Boavista’s miraculous 2001 title sandwiched between two triumphs for Sporting, had that duopoly been broken.
Sporting CP ultras on awaydays! pic.twitter.com/a3kcQSMciV
— 𝐂𝐚𝐬𝐮𝐚𝐥 𝐔𝐥𝐭𝐫𝐚 𝐎𝐟𝐟𝐢𝐜𝐢𝐚𝐥 (@thecasualultra) January 8, 2018
In spite of the lack of titles, Sporting never faded into irrelevance. They continue to be well supported, vociferously so by the club’s ultras. They’ve won several domestic cups and finished as runners-up on a number of occasions, including four years running behind Porto between 2005 and 2009, with Paolo Bento at the helm.
Since their last title win in 2001-02, where they were fired to the championship by an unforgettable 42-goal haul from ex-Porto hero Mario Jardel, 16 full-time managers came and went without delivering the increasingly elusive first-place finish. Fernando Santos, Carlos Carvalhal, Leonardo Jardim, Marco Silva and Jorge Jesus all couldn’t do it.
The 2012-13 season saw Sporting finish seventh in the table, their lowest placing in history, a state of affairs that led to the controversial and erratic Bruno De Carvalho – a former member of two ultras groups who was once described as ‘the Donald Trump of football’ – to be elected president at his second attempt.
De Carvalho’s infamously outspoken tenure reached boiling point in May 2018, when a group of 50 ultras broke into Sporting’s training ground, reportedly assaulted the head coach, Jorge Jesus, and players including club captain William Carvalho, vice-captain Rui Patricio and star striker Bas Dost.
A month prior, he’d suspended 19 first-team players, having called them “spoilt children” and “stupid” following Europa League elimination to Atletico Madrid.
Unsurprisingly, the car crash behind the scenes was not conducive to good performances, and Sporting ended up pipped to second place (and with it Champions League qualification) by Benfica before a shock 2-1 defeat in the Taca de Portugal final to relative minnows Aves.
Bas Dost, who suffered head injuries after an attack by Sporting CP fans this week at training, has just missed an open net from five yards… pic.twitter.com/MSaK9YOQ94
— Colin Millar (@Millar_Colin) May 20, 2018
Later that year, the ousted president found himself detained at home for suspicion of giving permission to the ultras to attack the players, before being charged with 99 crimes, including but not limited to terrorism, aggravated threat and kidnapping – but he was later acquitted due to a lack of evidence.
He was expelled as a club member in July 2019, having failed in his plans to make Sporting great again. The chaos led to the departures of Carvalho and Patricio, alongside the likes of Gelson Martins and Daniel Podence. Highly-rated Brazilian prospect Rafael Leao unilaterally terminated his contract, and others did the same.
A Better Bruno era
Frederico Varandas, De Carvalho’s comparatively strait-laced successor, had previously served in Afghanistan as a doctor before his role as team physician at Sporting. Experience in healing was essential, given the financial and institutional mess inherited.
Steady progress was made. They picked up future Leeds star Raphinha for a canny €6.5million fee from Primeira Liga rivals Vitoria Guimaraes, while Bruno Fernandes was starting to consistently show the kind of match-winning form he’s since brought to Manchester United.
Fernandes registered 32 goals and 18 assists in 53 appearances in all competitions as Sporting won the Taca de Portugal and Taca da Liga and finished third in the league in 2018-19.
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Raphinha was subsequently sold to Rennes for a tidy profit, and while Fernandes stayed until January, he too left, for a club-record €55million to United. The club’s financial issues meant that only a fraction could be reinvested and having lost their top talents, improvement looked unlikely especially after some questionable recruitment in the summer of 2019.
The tone for a more underwhelming 2019-20 campaign was set with a disastrous 5-0 defeat to champions Benfica in the season-opening Super Cup.
Ex-Ajax coach Marcel Keizer, who had led the club to the pair of cups, was dismissed in the opening weeks of the 2019-20 season, replaced by former journeyman midfielder Silas, who lasted less than six months.
“Ruben Amorim is going to need a lot of help,” Silas told reporters, giving an ominous warning to his successor-elect, having announced he was leaving his post with immediate effect following a 10th defeat from 28 games in charge in March 2020.
New boss Amorim, a three-time Portuguese title winner across two stints with Benfica as a player, was taking a risk in leaving Braga, while Sporting were themselves taking a risk in paying a €10million compensation fee for his signature – the third-highest in history for a coach. World Soccer Magazine’s Portugal correspondent Tom Kundert called the appointment “madness”.
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It wasn’t difficult to see why the appointment caused such a stir. €10million was a considerable chunk of Sporting’s budget, especially for a fledgeling 35-year-old coach whose top-level experience amounted to 13 games in charge of Braga.
Admittedly, he was turning heads as a promising young manager, having led Braga to 10 wins from those 13 games, but it was bold to take such a leap of faith so soon.
He got off to a good start, leading Sporting to a 2-0 win over Aves in his first game in charge but then the pandemic hit and Europe went into lockdown. Not only was football suspended, but his president returned to the medical profession to help in Portugal’s battle against the virus.
“I continued controlling things because football stopped, but the club continued,” Varandas told the New York Times. “It was not easy at all that first month and a half trying to cope with the hospital work and football.”
“Footballers are tested more than doctors working in hospitals. For me that’s really stupid, it’s political. I understand it politically, but scientifically this is ridiculous.”
When the Primeira Liga returned over the summer, Amorim’s Sporting continued to pick up decent results, returning by going seven games unbeaten (five wins, two draws), before ending the season on a low note with defeats to Porto and Benfica.
They finished fourth, behind Amorim’s former side Braga, trophyless, with some positive signs but little indication they were about to stop being the big three’s third wheel.
An unforgettable season
As with Leeds’ long-awaited promotion, Liverpool’s first title in three decades, and potentially Lille’s impending against-the-odds Ligue 1 victory, Sporting’s league title has come with a twinge of sadness, in a season without fans.
Benfica and reigning champions Porto have each endured a downturn, offering a sudden sense of opportunity, as with Celtic in the Scottish Premiership.
But like Rangers, who are closing in on their own historic unbeaten league campaign, this Sporting side would have been a worthy challenger to even the most vintage opponents; matching the record 88-point tallies set by Benfica (2015-16) and Porto (2017-18) is within their grasp. 25 wins, seven draws, no defeats and an unbroken run on the top spot since their sixth match of the campaign. They’ve been relentless.
Benfica spent big on South American stars Pedrinho, Everton Soares and Darwin Nunez – and even reportedly came close to luring Edinson Cavani – and bolstered their defence with proven Premier League names Jan Verthonghen and Nicolas Otamendi.
Porto underlined their champion pedigree by deservedly knocking Juventus out of the Champions League before giving finalists Chelsea a tougher challenge than either Atletico or Real Madrid could muster.
Sporting needed to be clever if they were to bridge the gap, and so they were. Yet again, they were operating at a negative net spend, having filled their piggy bank by selling Brazilian midfielder Wendel to Zenit Saint Petersburg and Argentinian left-back Marcos Acuna to Sevilla.
Centre-forward Paulinho, who had done well under Amorim at Braga, was the marquee signing at €14million. But the gamechanger was former Wolves academy player Pedro Goncalves, aka ‘Pote’, who had caught the eye the previous season at overachieving upstarts Famalicao.
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The void left by Bruno Fernandes had well and truly been filled; a 22-year-old star in the making that offered a major threat from midfield. His 18 goals to date see him challenging Benfica’s Haris Seferovic for the Golden Boot, while he’s notched three times as many as any of his team-mates. He’s already worth several times more than the bargain €6.5million fee they paid for him.
There have been some inspired moments from Goncalves and it was Paulinho that scored the clincher against Boavista, but the title triumph has been defined first and foremost by the supremely miserly defence, drilled to perfection by Amorim, who used the post-lockdown mini-season to implement a switch to a more compact 3-4-3. This season, Sporting have conceded just 15 goals in 32 outings, keeping 20 clean sheets.
Long-serving club captain Sebastian Coates, who remained with the club after being singled out for criticism by De Carvalho and the subsequent training ground attack, has looked unrecognisable to the error-prone individual Liverpool fans might remember.
The Uruguayan has led from the centre of the back three, while Manchester City loanee Pedro Porro has staked a strong claim for Luis Enrique’s Spain squad for the Euros with some glittering performances at right wing-back.
— Sporting CP (@SportingCP) May 12, 2021
“We are not yet clear on what we have just done. During the year there were many people who believed in us and in all those who work with us. It is an inexplicable feeling, the years will pass and we will remember this forever,” Coates told Sporting TV amid a wild night of celebration in the Portuguese capital, once the title was confirmed.
“When I got here I said I was coming to be a champion. It may have taken longer than I imagined, but this was my dream. I have always fought for this and we achieved it thanks to the whole team, coaches and technical staff. In addition, all Sportinguistas, because all of Portugal and the world must be as happy as we are.”
The wild celebrations in the capital were marred by clashes with riot police, but that’s not how their historic achievement will be remembered.
On Saturday, Sporting travel to Benfica as champions in what could be a Derby de Lisboa for the ages, as they look to keep their invincible record intact.
There are still issues behind the scenes, but Amorim – who has suddenly become an in-demand name – is already looking ahead and excited for the challenges to come.
“Next year there is the Champions League. We have a path to follow, but if this year was one of suffering, the next one will be even more – but we will be prepared for that,” he said.
“I will coach Sporting. I have a contract, I am very happy here and I will continue here.”
It’s a perfect match. Long may it continue.