Football Features

What happened next? Sporting’s 10 biggest player sales (and the current gems who could join them)

By Mohamed Moallim

Published: 14:45, 21 June 2022

Very few clubs across Europe boast a better youth academy than Portuguese giants Sporting CP.

The Lions of Lisbon ended a lengthy title drought in 2021 thanks to their current crop of superstars, some of whom are destined for even greater heights.

They are certain to follow in the footsteps of some world-class predecessors, and when that day eventually comes, it will be interesting to see where they rank among the club’s 10 biggest player sales of all time.

Speaking of which…

10. Cristiano Ronaldo (£12.24m)

  • To: Manchester United
  • Date: August 2003

The story behind Cristiano Ronaldo’s signing is now legendary. During a pre-season match with Manchester United, the dazzling Sporting CP winger impressed the club’s veteran stars so much that they convinced Sir Alex Ferguson to push a transfer through.

“It was plain that this was a potential superstar. An 18-year-old Ronaldo ran the show and we lost 3-1. We were on the bus afterwards waiting for chief executive David Gill and the boss Alex Ferguson,” former United defender Rio Ferdinand said in 2018. “We were just willing them to sign Ronaldo. Within a week he was our player.”

It proved to be a game-changing decision as the Portuguese forward would become a revelation during his first spell at Old Trafford — netting 118 goals across 291 appearances in all competitions, winning three Premier League crowns, the 2008 Champions League and a Ballon d’Or — before moving to Real Madrid where he cemented his legacy as an all-time great.

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9. Marcos Rojo (£16m)

  • To: Man Utd
  • Date: August 2014

Having watched Marcos Rojo closely at the 2014 World Cup finals, newly-appointed Man Utd boss Louis van Gaal was keen to make him a firm fixture in the Red Devils‘ backline. However, the Argentine defender would endure an up-and-down time in England, suffering a spate of injuries before returning to boyhood club Estudiantes on loan and eventually joining Boca Juniors on a permanent.

8. Raphinha (£17.5m)

  • To: Stade Rennes
  • Date: September 2019

Today, he’s arguably Leeds United’s most important player, but prior to being among the Premier League’s most dynamic performers, Raphinha enjoyed back-to-back prolific scoring campaigns with Sporting — where he befriended a certain Bruno Fernandes — and Rennes.

At the latter, the Brazilian winger helped them qualify for the 2020/21 Champions League group stage.

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7. Wendel (£18m)

  • To: Zenit Saint Petersburg
  • Date: October 2020

Given the understandable historical connection, Portugal is often the first port of call for Brazilian footballers. Wendel is among the many who have made this common journey and in Sporting’s midfield,  where things were tough at the beginning, he would play a key role in laying the foundations of their historic 2021 success. He never got to fully enjoy the fruits of his Primeira Liga labours, as Zenit Saint Petersburg swooped in for his signature before that season began. He did lift the Russian Premier League, though.

6. Gelson Martins (£19m)

  • To: Atletico Madrid
  • Date: July 2018

Before Sporting were crowned kings of Portuguese football, they were consistently knocking on the door and Gelson Martins was at the forefront. After netting 18 goals in 92 league appearances, Atletico Madrid brought him across the border, but it wasn’t a straightforward transfer.

Martins was one of a number of Sporting players who requested their contract be terminated in June 2018 following an incident where about 50 supporters broke into the club’s training ground and assaulted several players and staff members.

Atletico picked up his contract and Sporting demanded they pay the full €100m release clause, eventually coming to a compromise. But Martins couldn’t replicate his best form on Spanish soil and in the end, Atletico probably went to too much trouble for a player who didn’t make the grade.

A parting of the ways was inevitable and he’s since made Monaco his home. Just a year prior to his Atletico switch, Martins was even heavily linked with a move to Liverpool, but they eventually got a deal over the line for none other than Mohamed Salah instead.

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5. Nani (£21m)

  • To: Man Utd
  • Date: July 2007

And they say lightning does not strike twice. Although Nani wouldn’t be able to fully replicate Ronaldo’s success or numbers, he did become someone Ferguson would turn to for a big moment after his former Portuguese teammate left for Real Madrid.

A steep decline and competition for places ultimately saw him leave for pastures new, but perhaps the lack of appreciation for Nani’s Premier League career can partly be explained by the fact ‘assists’ were yet to be truly popularised in his hey day.

According to Opta, no player to play over 5,000 minutes of league football for Man Utd has averaged an assist as frequently for the club as Nani.

4. Adrien Silva (£22m)

  • To: Leicester City
  • Date: August 2017

Following their against-all-odds Premier League triumph, Leicester City were ready to establish themselves as one of England’s top sides. In order for that to happen, cash needed to be splashed. Looking to strengthen their midfield options, Adrien Silva was recruited from Sporting in August 2017 but he struggled to break into the Foxes starting eleven.

Of course, he wasn’t helped by the fact his transfer documents arrived with FIFA 14 seconds late, meaning he was ineligible to play for his new club until January 2018. Silva was understandably annoyed with FIFA’s trivial nature, but rules are rules and his Leicester career never really got going.

He swiftly exited, initially joining Monaco on loan before completing a permanent switch to Sampdoria and more recently Al Wahda in the UAE.

3. Islam Slimani (£28m)

  • To: Leicester City
  • Date: August 2016

Adrien Silva wasn’t the first Sporting player to join Leicester. Before he linked up with Jamie Vardy and company, Islam Slimani was signed to alleviate some of the pressure on the former England international’s shoulders, but the Algerian marksman wasn’t able to acclimatise to England’s top division. He would ultimately play 36 times, registering eight goals, before embarking on a journey that has since led him back to Portugal’s capital — where he is again wearing green-and-white.

While Slimani’s club career has been a mixed bag, he’s an icon in Algeria, becoming their record goalscorer in October. To date, he’s hit the net 40 times in 87 caps.

2. Joao Mario (£34m)

  • To: Inter Milan
  • Date: August 2016

Joao Mario played a huge part in some cup successes for Sporting in 2015 and was very much a player on the rise when Inter came calling in August 2016 — when the midfielder was fresh from winning Euro 2016 with Portugal.

Mario never did fulfil the huge sum Inter paid for his services and fell out with former boss Luciano Spalletti due to a lack of regular starts. Loan spells at West Ham and Lokomotiv Moscow followed, while he made a temporary return to Sporting last season, playing 28 Primeira Liga games as they finally regained the title.

You’d think that would be a fairytale story, but Mario has since joined fierce Lisbon rivals Benfica in a permanent deal. Safe to say, he’ll not be looking forward to the ‘Derby de Lisboa’ going forward.

1. Bruno Fernandes (£67.6m)

Man Utd transfer news on the Bruno Fernandes deal

  • To: Man Utd
  • Date: January 2020

Manchester United have needed some inspiration for a while now and in January 2020, they paid an eye-watering fee to Sporting CP to acquire Bruno Fernandes. This path worked with Ronaldo and, to an extent, Nani, so what could go wrong?

As a team, the Red Devils haven’t really progressed during the time since, still searching frantically for silverware and title relevance alongside Man City and Liverpool. But individually, Fernandes has run up some incredible numbers, hitting 47 goals and 37 assists in 111 appearances across all competitions so far.

Fernandes continues to be pigeon-holed as a ‘penalty/set-piece merchant’ and Paul Scholes even suggested the Portugal international is ‘becoming a problem’ for Manchester United. But there’s little doubt the Red Devils would be much, much worse off without him.

Which current Sporting breakthrough acts could earn big transfers?

Goncalo Inacio

Something curiously lacking from the above list — Rojo aside — are defenders. But it appears Sporting have a real gem on their hands in Goncalo Inacio. After a promising start in last season’s title success, the 20-year-old centre-back has been a rock in 2021/22 so far.

Quick across the ground, powerful in the air and comfortable on the ball, Inacio has all the ingredients to be a world-class defender for years to come. He’s also proven himself a bit of a goal threat, too. Remember the name.

Pedro Goncalves

It’s a cheap comparison, but a really obvious one; Pedro Goncalves could be the next Bruno Fernandes.

He plays in the same position, is a prolific goalscorer and is already 23 so will get his big move later than most. ‘Pote’, as he’s known, has scored 31 goals in 59 Primeira Liga appearances since the start of of the 2020/21 season and there’s no way Sporting would have won the title without him.

What’s more, he’s adapted brilliantly to the Champions League, scoring four and assisting another in just 281 group stage minutes to help Sporting reach the knockouts. Albeit loosely, Goncalves has already been linked with Manchester City, who he’ll face in the Champions League round of 16.

Matheus Nunes

It isn’t just the Goncalves show in the Sporting midfield. Matheus Nunes has also been a key figure in the recent successes, coming on leaps and bounds this year in particular. Rio-born, Nunes represents Portugal at international level and already has three senior caps. While Goncalves worries about getting the goals, Nunes sweeps up behind then progresses the ball forward with powerful running and precision passing — he appears perfectly suited to the Premier League.