Football Features

Would this combined XI of ex-Sporting CP stars have ended their Primeira Liga drought by now?

By Oliver Young-Myles

Sporting Lisbon former players

Published: 17:19, 30 July 2020

Rarely, if ever, has one club provided a tournament winning national team with so many of its star players as Sporting CP did to Portugal’s Euro 2016 team.

Of the 14 players involved in Portugal’s historic 1-0 win over France, no fewer than ten progressed through Academia Sporting in Alcochete, the prolific talent factory situated in the Setúbal District.

That number could have been even higher, too, as Portugal’s Man of the Match on the night, Pepe, also spent a two-week trial period with Sporting while he was contracted to C.S. Maritimo.

Portugal’s most-capped player and record goalscorer Cristiano Ronaldo is the most famous footballer to have passed through Sporting’s youth ranks and plenty of other top-class players have preceded and indeed followed him over the years.

Sporting are not solely prolific nurturers of talent, though. Like Portugal’s other big two (Benfica and Porto) they rely upon a broad scouting network that enables them to uncover hidden gems who they can acquire for relatively little and sell on for a fortune.

Hanging on to the top talents beyond a season or two is usually impossible for Sporting but if they had managed to retain their best youth products and bargain acquisitions, they might not currently be looking at a two-decade stretch without winning Portugal’s Primeira Liga.

Phil Babb, after signing for Sporting Club

Need a clear mental image to really wrap your head around just how long that barren stretch is? Feast your eyes on the above shot of Phil Babb, who played 27 times as the Lions won a league and cup double in 2002.

Anyway, check out how they could have lined up below. Champions League contenders?

Goalkeeper: Rui Patricio

  • Age: 32
  • Current Club: Wolves
  • Sporting Apps: 464
  • Major Honours: European Championship, UEFA Nations League, Taça de Portugal (x3), Taça da Liga, Supertaça Cândido de Oliveira (x3)

Young goalkeepers often find it difficult to establish themselves at a big club because it’s a position that historically values experience over youth.

It says plenty about Rui Patricio’s ability and temperament, therefore, that he was guarding Sporting’s net regularly from the age of just 19 and nearly a decade later, he was closing in on the club’s all-time appearance record held by Hilário.

He wouldn’t be able to usurp the legendary left-back, however. Patricio forced a move to Wolves following a 2018 incident where dozens of intruders (purporting to be disgruntled supporters of the club) stormed Sporting’s training complex and assaulted several players.

He has helped Wolves secure Europa League qualification twice, and they have a shot at winning the competition outright when it resumes next month.

Right Back: Cedric Soares

  • Age: 28
  • Current Club: Arsenal
  • Sporting Apps: 89
  • Major Honours: European Championship, Taça de Portugal (x2)

Germany-born Cedric Soares joined Sporting’s academy aged eight in 1999 and just under 12 years later he pulled on the famous green and white stripes for the first time.

A loan move to Academica in 2011-12 helped accelerate Soares’ development enabling him to become Sporting’s first-choice right-back for the next three seasons before he left permanently to join Southampton in 2015.

His time representing the Saints would come to an end in 2019 when he swapped the South Coast for Arsenal via a brief sojourn at Inter Milan.

He may not be the flashiest but is starting to find his feet in north London, where he scored on his debut and helped beat reigning champions Liverpoool.

Centre Back: Jose Fonte

  • Age: 36
  • Current Club: Lille
  • Sporting Apps: 59 (all for the B team)
  • Major Honours: European Championships, UEFA Nations League, Johnstone’s Paint Trophy

A late-bloomer. Jose Fonte spent a decade contracted to Sporting but was never part of the first-team picture, instead spending two seasons in the B-team before moving elsewhere to secure first-team football.

Following spells with Felgueiras, Vitoria Setubal, Benfica, Pacos Ferreira, Estrela Amadora and Crystal Palace, Fonte moved to Southampton in 2010 before representing West Ham United, Dalian Yifang and Lille, where he currently serves as captain. (HOW MANY MINUTES?)

At the age of 30, Fonte made his senior debut for Portugal and he too was heavily involved in their Euro 2016 win. The only man ever to win the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy and the European Championships. It is unlikely anyone else will emulate that achievement.

Centre Back: Eric Dier

  • Age: 26
  • Current Club: Tottenham
  • Sporting Apps: 31
  • Major Honours: 0

Eric Dier was the only member of England’s Euro 2016 squad to have been brought through an academy abroad after he spent nine years with Sporting in Portugal.

He joined Spurs in 2014 and spent his first season shuffling between the centre-back and right-back positions, before emerging as an outstanding defensive midfielder in his second campaign.

The native of Cheltenham is able to play a multitude of roles and since Jose Mourinho’s arrival he’s been alternating between defensive midfield and centre-back.

His stock may not be quite so high as it once was, but he’s still a regular performer at a big club. Those who expected to see more of an up-and-comer in place of either Dier or Fonte here might have Turkey’s Merih Demiral in mind. The Juventus centre-back spent a year with Sporting’s B team and, were it not for an ACL injury suffered in January, might have edged out Dier or Fonte here.

Left Back: Marcos Rojo

  • Age: 30
  • Current Club: Estudiantes (on loan from Manchester United)
  • Sporting Apps: 61
  • Major Honours: Copa Libertadores, Argentine Primera División, FA Cup, EFL Cup, FA Community Shield, UEFA Europa League

Sporting have signed numerous Argentinian left-backs in the past, including Emiliano Insua and Jonathan Silva, but Marcos Rojo has so far been the most successful of the lot.

Rojo joined them from Spartak Moscow in 2012 and enjoyed an excellent couple of seasons in Portugal before leaving for Manchester United in a lucrative transfer shortly after the 2014 World Cup.

His career at Old Trafford has been nothing short of topsy-turvy. Although he’s collected numerous pieces of silverware, chances are a permanent move away from United is not too far away. He gets the nod at left-back for now, but we’re keeping an eye on Leganes’ Silva, who could be on the move this summer after the embattled La Liga side’s recent relegation.

Midfield: William Carvalho

  • Age: 24
  • Current Club: Betis
  • Sporting Apps: 193
  • Major Honours: European Championship, UEFA Nations League: Taça de Portugal, Taça da Liga

It took a while for William Carvalho to really get going but when he did he became a true force of nature. A loan spell to the Belgian mid-table side Cercle Brugge in 2012-13 was the making of the midfielder and less than 12 months later he was staring at the World Cup.

Plenty of European heavyweights tried to lure Carvalho away from Lisbon, with then Sporting boss Jorge Jesus naming him vice-captain, but they couldn’t stop the inevitable when La Liga outfit Betis acquired his signature in 2018.

Injuries and inconsistency seem to constantly prevent Carvalho from realising the game-breaking midfielder promised by his quality in terms of passing and dribbling from deep. Betis finished 15th this season and it could be Carvalho has another go elsewhere. Currently it seems it’s Leicester City’s turn to be linked with him.

Midfield: Bruno Fernandes

  • Age: 25
  • Current Club: Manchester United
  • Sporting Apps: 137
  • Major Honours: UEFA Nations League, Taça de Portugal, Taça da Liga

The club’s most recent superstar. Fernandes, who came through at Novara but spent four seasons in Serie A (playing for Udinese and then Sampdoria) before returning home with Sporting. The rest was history.

The cerebral midfielder became a regular source of goals with his second campaign seeing him bag 33 across 53 appearances in all competitions. This piqued Manchester United’s interest, but they had to wait a while before making him the latest Sporting star to make Old Trafford his home.

He’s been worth it. Fernandes scored six goals and assisted another four after the Premier League restarted in June. The combined total is more than any player in the division, and the biggest reason we’ll be watching United play Champions League football next season.

Centre Midfield: Joao Moutinho

  • Age: 30
  • Current Club: Wolves
  • Sporting Apps: 258
  • Major Honours: European Championship, UEFA Nations League, Primeira Liga (x3), Taça de Portugal (x3), Supertaça Cândido de Oliveira (x5), UEFA Europa League, Ligue 1

Joao Moutinho progressed from the academy to become Sporting’s deep-lying playmaker in 2005, and he was a fixture in the team before leaving for Portuguese title rivals Porto in 2010.

At Porto, Moutinho won three consecutive Primeira Liga titles as well as the Europa League but in 2013 joined the revolution at Monaco alongside former teammates Radamel Falcao and James Rodriguez.

He’s since moved onto Wolves, where many of his compatriots now play. The experience and guile he brings has been an instrumental factor behind their newfound status as being among the best of the rest in England’s top division. Only Adama Traore (9) assisted more Premier League goals for Wolves than Moutinho (6) in 2019/20.

Right Wing: Raphinha

  • Age: 23
  • Current Club: Rennes
  • Sporting Apps: 41
  • Major Honours: Taça de Portugal, Taça da Liga

Raphinha would enjoy one full season in Lisbon before Stade Rennais broke the bank for the Brazilian’s signature. It was a short but sweet spell with the Lions, whom he helped win two major pieces of silverware.

He contributed five goals, three assists and 42 chances (more than any teammate) in the Rennes team that finished third by Ligue 1’s points-per-game standings.

Rennes should have to go through Champions League 2020/21 qualifiers, but Uefa’s plans for those remain unclear and there have been suggestions they may be scrapped to ease fixture congestion cause by the coronavirus pandemic. One way or another, though, if Raphinha continues to develop at this rate and acquire interest from bigger clubs, it won’t be long before we see him grace the Champions League.

Left Wing: Cristiano Ronaldo

Cristiano Ronaldo signs autographs after his Manchester United unveiling.

Cristiano Ronaldo signs autographs after an early Manchester United press conference.

  • Age: 35
  • Current Club: Juventus
  • Sporting Apps: 31
  • Major Honours: European Championship, UEFA Nations League, Supertaça Cândido de Oliveira, Premier League (x3), FA Cup, EFL Cup (x2), FA Community Shield, Champions League (x5), FIFA Club World Cup (x4), La Liga (x2), Copa del Rey (x2), Supercopa de España (x2), UEFA Super Cup (x2), Serie A (x2), Supercoppa Italiana

Sporting’s record for producing top-class wingers is staggering. Luis Figo, Simao Sabrosa, Ricardo Quaresma and Nani all passed through their ranks. But the greatest of all, and the man you came to see, is undoubtedly the three-time Ballon d’Or winner, Cristiano Ronaldo.

Ronaldo played just one full season in Lisbon before being signed by Manchester United in 2003 aged 18. The story goes that United’s players were so impressed by the youngster in a pre-season friendly, they urged Sir Alex Ferguson to sign him immediately.

In Manchester, Ronaldo became a European Champion and the best player in the world culminating in a then record-breaking £80m move to Real Madrid in 2009. He hasn’t done too badly over in the Spanish capital either, it must be said.

After helping Los Blancos winning four Champions League crowns he took his talents to Juventus. There he has won Serie A twice, having scored 31 goals this season, and is now determined to end the Italian’s long standing wait to be European champions again.

Striker: Bas Dost

  • Age: 31
  • Current Club: Eintracht Frankfurt
  • Sporting Apps: 127
  • Major Honours: DFB-Pokal, DFL-Supercup, Taça de Portugal, Taça da Liga

After joining Sporting in 2016 from Bundesliga outfit Wolfsburg, Bas Dost emerged as one of the highest-rated forwards playing outside the top five European leagues, mainly due to his record of 76 goals in 84 games.

During that period he’d bag seven Primeira Liga hat-tricks which placed him only behind Mário Jardel (14) in the all-time standings. A return to German football, though, followed with him now plying his trade at Eintracht Frankfurt.

Honourable Mentions: Andre Carillo, Bruma, Santiago Arias, Adrien Silva, Miguel Veloso, Danny, Ricardo Quaresma, Teofilo Gutierrez, Daniel Carrico, Nani, Merih Demiral