By Luis Mira | Portuguese Football Editor
With the season having just passed its midway mark, Sporting Lisbon's hopes of getting in the way of Porto and Benfica for the right to sit on the throne have already gone up in smoke. After all, the club are 16 points adrift of Portuguese Liga leaders and cross-town rivals Benfica and 11 points separate the fifth-placed outfit from the Champions League qualification places.
Meanwhile, Sporting have already bowed out of the Portuguese League Cup and, even if they defeat Legia Warsaw in the Europa League, moving past Manchester City or Porto in the next stage of the competition seems to be an unrealistic scenario. Their only hope of claiming silverware this season resides in the Portuguese Cup, in which they will meet Academica de Coimbra in the final, but even there they seem to be anything but a safe bet.
It was an unthinkable scenario, even for the most pessimistic of fans, prior to the start of the season, but everything that could go wrong has done so at the Estadio de Alvalade. Indeed, this season could serve as a case study of disastrous club management at every level.
Although Sporting put together the highest transfer kitty in the history of the club - €30 million – to reinforce the team in the summer, the practical effects of this investment are not visible: the club have the exact same number of points as they did at this time last year, yet sit one place lower in the table. Os Leoes still present some chronic problems in defence, where Oguchi Onyewu has been their only in-form centre-back, and in attack, where Ricky van Wolfswinkel has not scored a single goal, except from the penalty spot, in the last 10 competitive matches. And the club's debts, which amount to €276m, coupled with the lack of footballing success will prevent the club not only from having another spending spree next summer but also from recovering part of this year's investment should they decide to offload some players.
|PORTUGUESE LIGA STANDINGS AFTER 18 MATCHES
|4|| V. Guimaraes
But Sporting's problems have been off the field just as much as on. Godinho Lopes surprisingly won the club's presidential elections in March by just 0.4 per cent. At first, Bruno de Carvalho, the favourite for the elections, came out on top but, after votes were recounted, Lopes was proclaimed the winner. This led to some clashes between supporters of both candidates and it showed that unity was not the word at the Estadio de Alvalade.
Just one week into the season, Sporting launched a scathing attack at the state of refereeing after they felt that Carlos Xistra had made a mistake against them in the 1-1 draw against Olhanense in the opening round. Referee Joao Ferreira then refused to officiate Sporting's match against Beira-Mar after reports had suggested that the Lisbon club were unhappy with his appointment. The remaining professional referees all decided to back up Ferreira's stance, which made the Portuguese Liga appoint an amateur arbiter for the match. After this, Sporting were forced to back down in their battle with match officials.
Battles. Sporting have been reckless in choosing their own this season, and they have picked far too many. More recently, they started a new one, against Publico. The Portuguese publication reported that Sporting had covered the walls of the hall which gives the visiting teams access to the dressing room with photos of members of the club's ultras doing gestures which incited violence. The Estadio de Alvalade outfit lamented the timing of the report (one day before the match against Porto) and stated that Uefa had approved the photos. However, not only did the governing body state that it had no knowledge of the photos, but it also ordered the club to remove them. Their pride hurt, Sporting decided to paint sunflowers and butterflies on the walls and denied Publico's journalists access to the Alvalade in two home matches.
"What I ask is this: is there still a project? Either there is no certainty about the project, or about the team"
- defeated presidential candidate Bruno de Carvalho
Another damning example of the lack of strong leadership at the Estadio de Alvalade came last week. As some 50 fans hurled insults at the team at Lisbon's airport following a 2-0 defeat at Maritimo, Godinho Lopes assured that coach Domingos Paciencia would not be sacked, only to fire the 43-year-old just 24 hours later. After the president had continuously declared that Sporting's projected revolved around Domingos, the coach's dismissal clearly confirmed that not everyone is on the same page at the club.With just 12 matches to go before the league comes to an end, Ricardo Sa Pinto is the new man in charge. The 39-year-old, a former player, director and youth coach at Sporting, is an idol amongst the club's ultras. It is almost as if power has been given to the people. But if Sporting fail to reach third place in the league and fail to win the Portuguese Cup, more heads will roll in Lisbon at the end of the season - and the club may have to call new presidential elections for a third time in just three years.