Another Giant Falls As Reality Bites...

Despite Sporting Lisbon's proud traditions and historical success, a financial meltdown has pushed the club to the brink. Daniel Storey explains the woes in Portugal...

Last Updated: 07/11/12 at 11:46 Post Comment

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In days gone by football clubs were our port in a storm, equatable to a well-loved film or reliable friend as that shoulder to cry on. Whatever else was f**ked up personally, domestically or professionally, we needed something that didn't judge or argue back, but simply was.

As the commercialisation of our clubs occurred however, this position was lost. Although their status in our minds may have remained, their standing has altered. Our comfort blankets have become complex businesses, intrinsically and irrevocably linked to matters outside of our control and understanding such as the financial climate. They are no longer simply social institutions, but multi-million pound companies, inevitably affected by the rigours of economic life.

Those rigours have been felt in Portugal as much as anywhere else in Europe. The country has an unemployment rate of 15% and in 2011 was given a £63billion bailout. Last month, Finance Minister Vitor Gaspar announced substantial income tax rises and spending cuts in a bid to reduce the deficit, in a move that has sparked mass protests on Lisbon's streets. This is a country with more debt than Greece and a significantly shrinking economy.

It would be impossible for the country's largest football clubs to remain unaffected. Porto and Benfica have largely survived due to impressive league form leading to Champions League qualification, with the vital addition of impressive funds received for their finest assets. This summer alone, Benfica received €60million for Axel Witsel and Javi Garcia whereas Porto raised over €88m through the sale of Fredy Guarin, Hulk and Alvaro Pereira. At Lisbon's other club however, survival is anything but a certainty. Sporting Club de Portugal (known to English-speaking folk as Sporting Lisbon) are a club in serious decline.

Sporting are a club that have enjoyed consistent success domestically. They have won the title in 18 of the 77 Primeira Liga seasons and have 15 domestic cups to their name. Almost unbelievably, they have never finished outside of the top five of the top division since their formation. Even their two greatest rivals cannot match this, a feat surely unique within Europe's higher-ranked leagues?

The current situation is far removed from such historical consistency. Sporting have won the title just twice since 1982, and have failed to break into the top two in each of the last three seasons, missing out on the necessities of Champions League spoils. Crucially, they raised under €8m in player sales this summer, following up from a nominal amount in 2011/12. Given their transfer expenditure of €30m in the same time period, a financial tightrope is being walked.

The chairman Godinho Lopes has become an increasingly unpopular figure. Manager Ricardo Sa Pinto was sacked last month and replaced by Belgian Franky Vercauteren until the end of the season, and director of football Carlos Freitas and board member Luis Duque resigned from their positions after disagreements about how the club was being run financially. They felt that a liberal attitude to future security is putting the club in jeopardy.

Earlier this year, an auditors' report of the club revealed a "technical bankruptcy" after losing money for 12 years out of the last 13. Sporting had an accumulated debt of €375m. Whilst other large clubs in Portugal (and indeed Europe) have a higher debt figure, Sporting do not have the necessary assets to reverse the trend. The situation has now reached a critical stage.

On the field, despite the transfer spending, team performance has been unduly affected by financial doom. Sporting have won just one of their first eight league games. They sit in 13th place - one point and two positions above the relegation zone. In Europe, the 2005 UEFA Cup finalists have drawn 0-0 at home to Basel, lost in Belgium against Genk and were humiliated by Videoton, who currently sit fourth in the Hungarian NB 1. The mighty have not yet fallen, but the natural order is being rapidly dismantled.

The crucial concern is that an inevitable downward spiral has been created. In times of recession, watching your team becomes a luxury commodity. Football is an addictive beast - fans will scrimp and save in order to attend their fortnightly worship - but a team in the worst form of its 112-year history begins to lose its magnetism. In a choice between watching another inept display by highly-paid players or putting food on the table for your family, there is only one option. Portugal has the lowest household income and GDP per capita in Western Europe, and disposable incomes are cripplingly low. The reality of life soon bites, and minds are forced to comprehend that it really is 'just a game'.

In 2006/7 Sporting's average attendance was over 33,000, but just 22,000 attended the Europa League game against Basel. Only 3,000 more were at the league game against Gil Vicente. That's 25,000 empty seats in a stadium contributing to substantial weekly losses.

Although it has its on-field moments, football has no romance in the boardroom. The shift from the game of the masses to multi-billion pound entertainment means that, like the closure of traditional business institutions, there is little room for sentimentality. If you dance with the devil and all that.

As is the modern way, the only viable escape route is foreign investment, and the club has looked to the US, Angola and China in a bid to attract a bidder. Whether or not this alters the ethos of the club forever becomes fairly moot when the alternative is the financial abyss, but Sporting Club de Portugal may never again be quite the same.

This may be the club of Fernando Peyroteo, Luis Figo, Rui Jorge and Cristiano Ronaldo, but administrators pay little attention to tradition and history. The past may have been bright, but the present and future are stained by the inevitablity of change.

Daniel Storey - he's on the Twitter.

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