Fact: Sporting Clube de Portugal, or Sporting Lisbon to the English speaking fans, are in big trouble. Their debt stands at about €375 million, they are 13th in Portugal after 8 league matches, winning only one of them and have failed to win in any of their Europa League group stage matches in 2012-2013.
Fact II: One of Portugal’s traditional big 3 has won 18 league titles, but only two since 1982, the last one coming over 10 years ago. They’ve never finished outside the top 5, which is something that even Benfica and Porto can’t claim to have accomplished, but still, they’ve been left far behind in the race for success and economic security.
The name of the game in Europe isn’t to win titles. It’s to become financially relevant, and without an extremely rich owner, you do that by reaching the Champions League. Alas, Sporting have failed to reach the Champions League group stage over the last four years, not even making the qualifying stage of the competition the last three.
They’ve been left behind by Benfica and Porto, who manage to make it through the terrible times in European and specifically Portuguese economics (15% unemployment among other depressing numbers) by selling players and reaching the Champions League on a consistent basis.
A team that developed talents like Luis Figo, Cristiano Ronaldo and to a lesser degree Nani, Simao and Quaresma fell behind in the sellers market as well. Benfica sold Javi Garcia and Axel Witsel for over €60 million this summer, and are still doing OK in the UCL group stage and co-leading the league with Porto. For the champions, the most dominant team in Portugal over the past 20 years, it’s been a haul of over €88 million for selling Fredy Guarin, Hulk and Alvaro Pereira. That with the Champions League keeps them afloat, maybe even profitable. Not to mention the attendance numbers.
Their average attendance was just over 30,000 last season, dropping to 25,000 so far this year. That means over 20,000 seats left empty. Money that’s not being made. In comparison, Benfica are close to 40,000 per game, not to mention their UCL hauls. Porto bring about 35,000 fans per match.
The most concerning number regarding Sporting is they’ve been losing money in 12 of the past 13 seasons. While selling players has brought them only €8 million last summer, compared with their bigger sisters, they’ve managed to spend while facing bankruptcy more than three times that amount on players over the last couple of seasons, which haven’t really taken them very far.
The club is looking for investors in the United States, Angola and China; so far not coming up with quite a lot. Their debt that we’ve mentioned before isn’t the biggest you’ll find around Europe, but unlike other clubs, like Manchester United or Real Madrid, Sporting don’t have the assets to back them up.
If something doesn’t happen soon, don’t be surprised to see the same thing that happened to Rangers in Scotland happening to Sporting in Portugal. A big name doesn’t give you immunity forever, especially with money as tight as it is these days.