Sporting’s ‘bet’ on fertile youth system pays off

Lisbon (AFP) – Sporting Lisbon are finally poised to turn their productive youth system into trophies as a team filled with youngsters stand one match from ending the club’s 19-year wait for a league title. 

The club developed Luis Figo and, more recently, almost half of the Euro 2016-winning team including Cristiano Ronaldo, Joao Moutinho, Nani and Ricardo Quaresma but they have not won a Portuguese league title since the 2001-2002 season. 

Since then, Sporting’s Lisbon rivals Benfica and Porto have split the title between them.

That drought could end on Monday if  second-placed Porto fail to win at home to second-bottom Farense, or on Tuesday if Sporting win at home against struggling Boavista.

With three games left, Sporting lead by eight points and are unbeaten in the league this season. They are winning with kids.

Just three years ago, Sporting went though the worst crisis in their 100-year history. In May 2018, after the club finished third in the Portuguese league fans invaded and ransacked its training centre and assaulted players and staff.

The incident led to the departure of coach Jorge Jesus, several senior members of the squad and club president Bruno de Carvalho, whose confrontational relationship with players led to accusations that he had inflamed fans’ anger. 

Last year, Frederico Varandas, who replaced de Carvalho as president, decided to “change the paradigm” and put youth at the heart of the club’s strategy.

– Experience to blend with youngsters –

While the club still has a core of experienced veterans, this season has seen the rise of young home-grown players under coach Ruben Amorim, himself only 36 years old. 

In defence, 18-year-old Nuno Mendes, who is being courted by Manchester City and Juventus, and Goncalo Inacio, 19, have established themselves. 

In midfield, Daniel Braganca (21) and Matheus Nunes (22) have been regulars. In attack, Jovane Cabral (22) and Tiago Tomas (18) have scored important goals. 

Youth “is our bet”, Amorim said at the end of March, after the debut of midfielder Dario Essugo, who at 16 years and six days became the youngest player to appear in the Portuguese top flight. 

“Dario has a lot of talent, he is part of our project, no matter what age, it’s a message to all the kids who are undecided between several clubs, let them know that here the door is open,” the coach stressed. 

In addition to the players from their “academy”, Sporting have acquired youth in the transfer market.

Their most successful bets have been on  21-year-old Spanish defender Pedro Porro, who is on loan from Manchester City, and 22-year-old Portuguese attacking midfielder Pedro ‘Pote’ Goncalves. 

Pote, who spent time at Wolves and Valencia, arrived from Famalicao last summer and is joint top scorer in the Portuguese league with Benfica’s Swiss international Haris Seferovic on 18 goals. 

To support the youngsters, Sporting brought in experienced players last summer, including 28-year-old Portuguese international Joao Mario, who started his career at the club, 33-year-old former Real Madrid goalkeeper Antonio Adan and much travelled 32-year-old Moroccan international Zouhair Feddal. 

In the winter, 37-year-old former Portuguese international Joao Pereira returned to Sporting. 

“The mix of academy players and more experienced players is important in the success of teams,” Amorim said after the club ensured it would finish in the top two and qualify for the Champions League next season.

“We will suffer, but we cannot change our idea of betting on the training and development of players,” he said 

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