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A crazy president, ultras attacking players and a squad exodus – the sad, sadistic story of Sporting

4:00 AM EDT 5/29/18
Jorge Jesus Sporting CP
The Portuguese club is embroiled in turmoil, with players threatening to quit and calls for their notorious president Bruno de Carvalho to resign

“It was annoying, but tomorrow is a new day. We have to realise that crime is part of everyday life and that it needs to be punished in the right place, at the right time.”

These apathetic comments from Sporting CP president Bruno de Carvalho served only to pour more fuel onto a fire that was blazing out of control following the brutal attack on the club’s players and staff at their training complex on May 15.

Yet no one should have been surprised. After all, this is a man who has regularly courted controversy since taking charge of the club in 2013.

Following a failed election campaign in 2011, Bruno de Carvalho eventually assumed control two years later during a troubled season that culminated with the Lions finishing in seventh place, their lowest Primeira Liga placing ever. A former member of two of Sporting’s ultras groups, he was elected on the promise to rescue the club from its financial slump and bring back the glory days.

There has been no such revival of fortunes, with Sporting still in the shadow of their great rivals, Benfica and Porto. Only a Taca de Portugal, Taca da Liga (the country’s two cup competitions) and a Portuguese Supercup have been won during his tenure with the club having now gone 16 years without winning the league title.

The only real success Bruno de Carvalho has had is in attacking people; players, journalists, player agents, fellow club presidents, the Portuguese Football Federation and even certain sections of Sporting’s own fans. The president has stopped at nothing to put the club in the spotlight, making frequent inflammatory comments, either via the club’s TV channel or his own Facebook account – which he has suspended and reactivated multiple times.

His Facebook rants took on a whole new meaning in April of this year, when he posted a message lashing out at his own players following Sporting’s 2-0 defeat to Atletico Madrid in the first leg of their Europa League quarter-final tie.

Among other things, he wrote that “[Sebastian] Coates and [Jeremy] Mathieu did what Atletico’s forwards could not”, in a reference to the defensive errors that had led to the Spanish team’s goals. He also criticised Gelson Martins’ poor finishing, after he squandered a one-on-one chance.

For Sporting’s players, this outburst crossed the line. Just 24 hours later, the squad issued a statement lamenting the “absence of support” from their president, whom they noted “should be our leader”.

They added that such matters should be handled internally and never publicly. Bruno de Carvalho did not take kindly to those remarks and posted a message on Facebook announcing the immediate suspension of all players who had shared the statement on social media, describing them as “spoiled children”.

This message was soon deleted, but things would never be quite the same again between the president and his staff – including manager Jorge Jesus, who stood by his players.

After a heated meeting between Bruno de Carvalho, the team and the coaching staff, the suspension was lifted to protect the interests of the club but, in a statement, the Portuguese outfit made sure to mention that the players had “acted incorrectly towards their employer”.

With the players and the president now involved in a cold war of sorts, it was up to Jesus to pick up the pieces and try to salvage the season.

Much to everyone's surprise, he was able to rally the team, who put eventual Europa League winners Atletico Madrid against the ropes in their second leg in Lisbon, narrowly failing to overturn the deficit. They beat Porto in the semi-finals of the Portuguese Cup and appeared to all but confirm second place in the Primeira Liga with a goalless draw against Benfica at home.

And then madness took over again. The day before the crunch match at Maritimo on the final matchday of the season – a game in a historically difficult arena that Sporting needed to win to qualify for the Champions League – Portuguese newspaper Expresso released an interview with Bruno de Carvalho.

It was an interview conducted right after the first leg against Atletico Madrid and then held. In the piece, he openly criticised not only the players but also the coach for his role in the tense situation involving the president.

Coincidentally or not, the Lions produced an uninspired display and lost 2-1, finishing in third place as Benfica leapfrogged them in the table with a home victory against Moreirense. Tensions rose after the match as some players had a heated verbal exchange with ultras at the airport, while reports emerged that Jesus was facing disciplinary action from the club.

Just two days later, the unthinkable happened as some 50 masked ultras – armed with sticks and belts – broke into Sporting’s training ground and attacked players and staff members. The club’s top-scorer from the past two seasons, Bas Dost, was left with two cuts on his head and tears in his eyes in a poignant image that summed up the sadness of the situation.

The prolific Dutchman admitted to feeling “empty” inside after the squad was caught by the surprise attack in their dressing room. The incident was condemned by all sectors of Portuguese society and prime-minister Antonio Costa announced the creation of a national body to combat violence in sport.

Rumours began to circulate about the possibility of players tearing up their contracts, having essentially been attacked in their own workplace. However, a team statement confirmed that they would play the Portuguese Cup final, even if they only resumed normal training the day before the match.

Looking understandably dispirited and out of shape, the Lions lost 2-1 to minnows Aves – a fitting end to a season that had suddenly gone off the rails.

The exact repercussions of the incident at Sporting’s training ground are still unclear, with the club still in utter turmoil. Jaime Marta Soares, the president of the Board of the General Assembly, and Alvaro Sobrinho, the owner of Holdimo, the biggest shareholder in the company that operates Sporting’s football section, are some of the figures who have called for Bruno de Carvalho’s resignation.

Yet the president fights on, refusing to recognise his own failings. “The type of president that I am, the president-supporter, is the president of the future,” he recently protested.

Even in the face of adversity, he remains certain that his project is the best for the club and that his opponents are trying to take advantage of this situation in order to overthrow him.

Marta Soares announced on Thursday evening, following an inconclusive meeting with the board – which now consists of just seven people after six members walked out – that there will be a General Assembly on June 23 to decide the fate of Bruno de Carvalho. The president still enjoys unwavering support from large sections of Sporting’s supporters, especially the most radical ones, but ultimately his future may depend on the actions of his players.

Key squad members like captain William Carvalho, vice-captain Rui Patricio, Acuna and Bruno Fernandes are among the players believed to be looking for pastures new, while coach Jorge Jesus has reportedly made it clear that he wants to leave despite still having a year left on his contract.

It is unclear, however, whether the dissatisfied players will wait for Sporting to conduct business with other clubs or force an exit by legally terminating their contracts, this way dealing an immeasurable financial blow to the Lions’ already fragile coffers.

Bruno de Carvalho certainly gave these players food for thought by claiming last weekend, during a 90-minute rant at a press conference, that the players had been indirectly responsible for the incident in Alcochete having stood up to the ultras.

In the aftermath of Thursday’s meeting, Bruno de Carvalho described the decision to hold a General Assembly as an “atomic bomb”. “It is the saddest institutional moment of my life, and I believe I speak for everyone,” he roared.

More rough days like this in Lisbon are a certainty now. At Sporting, things may get even worse before they get better, for chaos has become part of the club’s everyday life under Bruno de Carvalho.

Thus, one can only pray that there is no repeat of the deplorable violence that has shamed this great football club.