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Mar 24, 2013

Back to the future for skint Sporting

Every silver lining has a cloud for Sporting Clube de Portugal at the moment, it seems. On Wednesday night, as the Lisbon club's highly impressive under-19 team were sweeping into the NextGen Series finals weekend, swatting aside Tottenham in the quarter-finals, the voice of economic reality was clearing its throat back in the Portuguese capital.

The country's media outlets were reporting that Sporting had sealed a €10 million (€8.5 million) deal to sell forward Ricky van Wolfswinkel to Norwich City. Though the Dutchman would not make his way to Carrow Road until the summer, the plan is for the money to make its way to Lisbon now, allowing Sporting to pay the two months worth of salary owed to playing and non-playing staff at the Estadio Jose Alvalade.

Gallingly for the club's fans, Sporting will only receive 35% of the money from Norwich, having already sold the remaining 65% of van Wolfswinkel's sporting rights to third parties because of the need for quick cash.

It is a farrago typical of their recent fortunes. For many, the loss of such a well-regarded player from the squad is a final kick in the teeth as the disastrous two-year reign of outgoing president Luis Godinho Lopes comes to a close. Former Sporting and Celtic striker Jorge Cadete told Antena 1 van Wolfswinkel's sale was "a pathetic action" by Godinho Lopes, a fait accompli tying the hands of the winner of Saturday's presidential election.

"The team is already being taken apart, so whoever comes in will have to pick up a player of the same level, which they surely won't be able to," Cadete lamented.

In a televised debate on RTP Informação on Thursday, presidential candidates Carlos Severino, Bruno de Carvalho and Jose Couceiro unanimously agreed that Godinho Lopes signing off the van Wolfswinkel deal now was "immoral".

While the timing of the soon to be ex-president's last deal may appear to look like somebody taking out the light bulbs hours before their home is repossessed, there is recognition across the board that savings must be made somewhere. Whoever guides Sporting on from here, the solutions to the problems on the pitch and the balance sheet are likely to be found in a return to their roots.

In the last two years, there has been the feeling that one of Portugal's proudest traditions, the Sporting youth academy, was becoming neglected. The list of Alvalade products is extraordinary, with Portuguese football royalty of the calibre of Luis Figo, Cristiano Ronaldo, Nani, Simão and João Moutinho tripping off the tongue.

While Godinho Lopes rode to power by garnering the support of Sporting's older members (who had more votes under the club's electoral system) using evocative rhetoric of past glories, this central tenet of the club's personality stopped being part of the plan.

Before last winter's transfer window, 19 players had been brought in under his tenure - all non-Portuguese - while the homegrown likes of André Martins were largely left kicking their heels on the sidelines. When Sporting were comprehensively beaten at home by Benfica in December's Lisbon derby, goalkeeper Rui Patricio was the only Portuguese player to start.

This season has seen Sporting lurch from one on-pitch crisis to the next - they are on their fourth head coach of the campaign, Jesualdo Ferreira, and have been closer to the relegation zone than the Champions League places for the duration.

Yet this chaos has, eventually, seen some academy graduates given a glimmer of opportunity in the last few months. The recent promotion of teenagers like Eric Dier and Bruma to the Alvalade first-team has shown that the production line is still working just fine and that the players can be ready when they get the chance. The versatile England Under-19 defender Dier (who can also play in midfield) has been one of the few bright spots in Sporting's sorry season.

As this week's NextGen action at Leyton Orient's Matchroom Stadium on a chilly Wednesday night showed, there are plenty waiting to join them. A talented squad appears to be reaping the benefits of a major change in the Portuguese Liga's structure, which allowed the biggest clubs' B teams to compete in the Liga da Honra, Portuguese football's second tier, from this season onwards.

Most of the side that powered to a 5-3 extra-time win over Spurs have featured for Sporting B - currently third in the Liga da Honra - this season, and it showed.

Initially perturbed by the Londoners' physicality, Sporting quickly settled and made their superior technique count. Striker Betinho, who scored the first two with highly-accomplished finishes, will hope for an opportunity with the seniors next season when Van Wolfswinkel has gone.

Ricardo Esgaio, an assured winger in the house style who has already scored 14 times for Sporting B this season, was also a constant threat and created Betinho's second with an inviting cross. They also had the game's main midfield powerhouse in Cameroonian Fabrice Fokobo, intermittently reminiscent of a young Michael Essien and the scorer of the clinching fifth with a rocket of a shot from some 40 yards.

Any crumbs of comfort are welcome at the moment for, much as Sporting reclaiming their identity as a fertile bed of youth production is a pleasing narrative, they really have no option in the current climate. The club lost an eye-watering €46 million (£39 million) last season and have built up total debts of €220 million (£187 million) under Godinho Lopes' regime.

Whoever is installed in the hotseat early next week will have plenty on his plate. They will be no quick fixes for Sporting, and mounting a challenge to Benfica and Porto still seems a long way off. That a new generation is ready to help rebuild Sporting's reputation is, however, of some solace.

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