When the subject of revered footballing academies comes about, the list of clubs standing proudly beside opportunity and tradition is a lengthy one. However, in peak 2020, only one team has the honour to declare itself as the creators of not one, but two Ballon d’Or winners.
That club is, of course, Lisbon-based Sporting, home to the professional careers of both Portugal legend Luis Figo and his international number seven successor, Cristiano Ronaldo.
For the Lions, as they’re frequently referred to on Portuguese shores, Ronaldo and Figo’s footballing success is merely the icing on the cake, with their influence across the domestic scene broadening beyond the projection of the famed wingers.
On Portugal’s proudest day as a footballing nation, within a 23-man squad that celebrated unprecedented success versus France in the Euro 2016 final, 11 players owed their footballing education to the Sporting academy, Alcochete. By contrast, the second highest tally amassed was Benfica’s with just three names in Fernando Santos’ squad.
It is, without a doubt, a great source of pride for the green half of Lisbon, but one that’s often come at the expense of titles – the true blood that flows through the club. As a consequence, Sporting have chopped and changed leadership and approaches a handful of times, ranging from being on the verge of complete bankruptcy to being on the cusp of landing a league title that has evaded them since 2002.
Now under the fresh presidential tenure of Frederico Varandas, the former head physio of the club is already on his fourth permanent managerial change in little less than two seasons of football, squeezing in two additional periods of interim management from hopeful Under-23 managers.
But as the old saying goes, or a variation of it, “you’re only as good as your last play,” and the Sporting president and his entourage appear to have produced an interesting one.
Despite not holding the relevant coaching badges, Sporting were attracted to Rúben Amorim, himself new to the managerial surroundings at Sporting de Braga after taking over in January 2020.
Amorim cracked the top three bingo with wins against FC Porto, Benfica and Sporting, including a League Cup final win to add to his resumé, that was promptly absorbed by Sporting in March of this year, forking out a staggering €10 million on the switch for the inexperienced manager.
By fluke or design, results are slowly beginning to pay off for the Lions, currently flying high in the form charts since the appointment. With it, Amorim has laid out an expansive 3-4-3 formation for Sporting to abide by and, to the delight of the fans, that’s included more opportunities for young prospects, otherwise buried behind expensive and ineffective signings.
Through the investment made in Amorim, yet to lose in his career as a Primeira Liga manager, Sporting now hope to recoup the funds with high quality performances and, eventually, healthy sales, as the realities of a Portuguese club demands.
Despite symbolising youth production in Portugal, the art of ‘Moneyballing’ has been lost on the green & whites, paling in comparison to their rivals in sales, with both Porto’s and Benfica’s academies, as some may argue, surpassing what was once the go-to place for every young hopeful.
Sporting’s current crop offers hope of a fighting comeback, however. 18-year-old Eduardo Quaresma has slotted in seamlessly to Amorim’s back three, with the defender’s technical & physical capabilities to drive the ball forwards from the back already alerting the interest of bigger clubs.
Jovane Cabral, previously hidden behind high-earners such as Jesé Rodriguez and Yannick Bolasie, both no longer at the club, has thrived in the half spaces with top-quality efforts previously only seen flying off the feet of Manchester United man Bruno Fernandes.
Joelson Fernandes is another, a typically tricky winger that’s comfortable on both flanks, who looks a real menace cutting in, especially with the additionally-young Nuno Mendes on the overlap from left-wing-back.
Behind them there’s Tiago Tomás, Matheus Nunes, Chico Lamba, Gonçalo Inácio, João Daniel, Bruno Tavares and many more who make it seem as though Sporting have stumbled across a golden generation all of a sudden.
Whether they have or not, time and opportunity will tell and Amorim, slowly constructing a poster-boy image out in Portugal, appears to have that in spades.