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June 7, 2018

What If Your Club Lost All Its Players: The Sporting Lisbon Story

By Tiago Estêvão

What if your club lost all its players and got almost nothing in return? Sporting CP in Portugal may be about to find out.

Thinking about hypothetical situations is fun. Everybody’s had those conversations with friends at a bar. “What if Manchester City were never bought by Sheikh Mansour?”, you say before everyone goes on a rant about the prospect of a world where Stephen Ireland is still their number seven and Michael Johnson became one of England’s great captains. It’s the same hypothetical people play on Football Manager, taking out all the players from an elite club to see what happens or starting a save with Barcelona using only players from La Masia. But, what if I told you this experiment is happening in real life?

Now, the story is happening in real life. In Portugal, Sporting CP will likely see a sizeable portion, if not their full-squad, resign this summer. Here’s how it happened.

 

The Background

Bruno de Carvalho was elected president in 2013 and started a very positive period for Sporting. The club took steps to reduce the distance between them and the other two big teams in the country. Results improved, ticket sales improved, player sales had a large boost – 4 of the top 5 most expensive sales in club history occurred during this period – and the club’s financial stability improved. As a result, investment increased – 4 of the top 5 most expensive arrivals in club history also occurred during this period – and, at least in large part, became smarter as well.

Carvalho’s improvements also came with controversy. The man was quite confrontational. He didn’t shy away from conflict in any shape or form, sparring  with the media or personalities connected to rival clubs (one particularly memorably incident involved West Ham’s owners). And while the results improved under the new regime, the club continued to fall short of their ultimate goal of achieving their first league title since the 2001/2002 season.  The environment worsened and eventually became toxic. The confrontations turned inward, ultimately resulting in public criticism and threats of mass suspension of players in April.

Then things got even worse. After Sporting fell short of a Champions League spot and before the Cup final that they would end up losing, a large group of fans entered the club’s training ground and physically attacked the squad. There were some injuries, striker Bas Dost suffered cuts to his head, but beyond the physical impact, the mental toll of the event was undoubtedly enormous. With a large number of fans blaming the President for installing such a confrontational climate around the club and for the lack of defense measures that could’ve prevented the attack.

Regardless of how people feel about the club’s last few months, both on and off the pitch, the threat of a wave of resignations from the squad members became very real when the first few came to fruition last week. Rui Patricio, team captain and starting goalkeeper for the last 10 years, delivered a 34-page resignation letter in which he details the events that happened during the afternoon of the attack and the inadequate relationship that stood between the president and the players for the last few months.

The player chose to go forward with this move after a transfer to Wolves was supposedly denied through last minute demands. Following the captain, promising young forward Daniel Podence also delivered his letter of resignation – the 22-year-old works under the same agent which is what presumably facilitated the process. Both players resigned under ‘fair cause’, claiming a lack of safety in their work environment from both a mental and physical stand-point. And now the floodgates may be open. Other players might follow their lead, or, at the very least, demand the club sell them. The club’s biggest assets are all rumoured to be pushing for an exit in some capacity.

 

A Precarious Moment for Sporting and Portugal

First, it seems like the ideal situation for a lot of European clubs to take advantage of: players worth millions able to sign on a free for a fraction of what their price would have been six months ago will be music to the ears of teams from the top leagues. William Carvalho has attracted interest from Marco Silva’s Everton, while Arsenal are rumored to have already had an offer denied for Gelson Martins, which could tempt him to go the resignation route.

According to the press, there’s also the possible interest from Portugal’s other two big teams in Sporting players. That possibility is more dangerous for the health of the league. While getting a talented asset from a direct rival on a free will lead to a net positive result in the present, it won’t be beneficial in the long-term. It will help lower the competitive standard of the league in the long-term – a problem that is already very clear in this competition – and help prevent the currently benefiting team from getting to a higher level in the future. This isn’t just one team selling to another where both teams benefit. Given the current situation, “selling” club doesn’t benefit from the player’s exit in any way – actual sales are a different story entirely. Having a high-quality Porto, Benfica and Sporting (and Braga now) is advantageous for all four of them.

From the Sporting’s perspective there’s a clear need for stability before everything else. There’s still a lot of players threatening to come forward if the President doesn’t step down, manager Jorge Jesus just left for Al Hilal and how well they deal with this back-room crisis, will reflect on how quickly they can start assessing the issues in the squad and preparing next season. Luckily for them, despite losing the Cup final and only coming third in the league, they’ll still go straight into the Europa League group stage, getting the chance to start the season much later.

In an ultimate hypothetical scenario where all the team’s major players leave with no financial benefits for the club, we’d likely see them give a much larger chunk of their minutes to younger players coming through from their academy, coupled with more minutes for players who were perhaps second options this season. The team would undoubtedly lose individual quality, but they’d still have enough in them to be in the league’s top three while developing some players who would otherwise not been given a chance. If well managed it could be a scenario that they bounce back from. If not, it could deepen a dark period in the history of the club’s football team.

The most likely scenario will not be that drastic, but it will still be fascinating to watch how the club deals with this situation and how each player manages their interests between working conditions and the prospect of playing more next season – particularly if they didn’t have that much involvement this campaign. It truly feels like a novel that gets a chapter added on a daily basis. Don’t be surprised if a day, a week, or a month from now this has continued to snow-ball in an even bigger issue. It’s the kind of situation that’s fascinating to consider as a hypothetical. If only this was all just a video-game experiment.

 

(Header image courtesy of the Press Association)

Article by Tiago Estêvão