There is no one reason why people love the game of football so much. It’s a multitude of things all fused together to forge this immense adulation. Some were born into a club and had no choice in the matter; others picked it up in a different way but still enjoy it equally as much. In the modern football world, though, it’s getting increasingly easier to become disenchanted and disenfranchised with the domination of money-rich sides soaked in oil and petroleum wealth; once storied and historic clubs now broken and buried by the weight of FIFA’s new financial fair play rules.
Within that conglomerate there are a handful of clubs willing to play the game differently. Without foreign ownership prepared to pump billions in, these sides rely heavily on the quintessential bedrock of their being, what should be the foundation of any club’s future and the ideal of every supporter who follows it – their academy.
There are a handful of outstanding ones across Europe at the minute but, historically, few have been as successful or consistently fruitful as that of Sporting Clube De Portugal or Sporting Lisbon as they’re more commonly referred to on our shores.
The capital city club – along with their rivals, Benfica, and Porto - are part of a select group in Portuguese football known as ‘Tres Grandes’ or ‘The Big Three’: a trio of the biggest and most successful clubs in the country. The difference with Sporting is that, unlike Benfica and Porto, they have based their success, to a large extent, on their much vaunted youth academy.
Instead of taking advantage of Portuguese passport laws, buying up South American talent and then selling onto European clubs at an extortionate premium - like the latter pair - Sporting scour far and wide for the youngest boys from the ages of seven and up.
These raw, uncut gems are then embedded at their ‘Academia de Futebol de Sporting’ at Alcochete where they are then developed and integrated into the first team after a number of year.
When the time is then right, and they have progressed sufficiently, they are then sold on for large fees. This money is then pumped back into their grassroots programmes and the cycle continues.
Over the years, it has been difficult to keep up with both Benfica and Porto in terms of trophy hauls. Sporting haven’t won a league title since 2002 with their last triumph coming in 2008 when they won the Portuguese Cup but their faith in the club’s ideals has rarely waivered and they continue to profit from that – the 2013 transfer of 20 year-old winger Bruma to Galatasaray bagging them €10 million and around €7 million from Spurs for defender Eric Dier during the most recent summer.
The current jewel in the crown of the Estádio José Alvalade is William Carvalho. The midfield powerhouse has been linked with European football’s biggest clubs and at just 22 will be commanding a fee of around £20 million should he leave. He is but the tip of the iceberg within the current set-up with a number of impressive young talents – most notably Carlos Mane, Joao Mario and young Scottish prospect Ryan Gauld – already forging big reputations.
Of course, the most recent starlets have a lot to live up to with regard to their predecessors.
For such a relatively small club on a European scale, Sporting have produced some of the world’s finest players. Their academy roster includes three-time Ballon d’Or winner and the current World Player of the Year, Cristiano Ronaldo; Luis Figo, Joao Moutinho, Luis Nani – currently back on-loan there, Miguel Veloso, Hugo Viana, Ricardo Quaresma, Simao Sabrosa going back as far as Paulo Futre – just a handful of names off a conveyor belt of supreme talent over the years.
Sporting Club remain one of the few clubs in European football willing to entrust their future to their youth academy.
On an uneven terrain that’s slanted cynically in favour of the super-rich – most of who have been financially doping for years – and whilst they continue to trail slightly in pursuit of Benfica and Porto they are to be heralded and applauded for their idealistic notions and their dedication to Portuguese football’s future.