Look back at Sporting's story: Nani, Bruno Fernandes and Bas Dost return - the end of the Sporting crisis?
These last few months have no doubt been a testing time for Portuguese giants Sporting CP to endure, with one controversy seemingly constantly following another and little respite evident in halting the descension into chaos. But have we finally reached a turning point, just in time for the start of the new campaign?
Where it all began
Sporting's problems are both extraordinary and enthralling, a well-documented saga reported across the continent, with the club - famed for having one of the greatest academies in world football - appearing to be collapsing in on itself. The source of Sporting's troubles can, at the very least, be tracked back to April, when the Lisbon club lost valiantly 2-0 to eventual champions Atletico Madrid in the Europa League quarter final. After the defeat, then-club president Bruno de Carvalho, a controversial figure in Portuguese football, decided to publicly criticise his players on social media, a decision senior members of the Sporting dressing room were quick to condemn.
The saga resulted in an enraged Bruno de Carvalho spectacularly deciding to suspend a total of 19 senior players for their upcoming match against Paços de Ferreira, which led to the suggestion that Sporting's B team - who were sitting in the relegation zone in Portugal's second division at the time - would be playing in the senior side's next league match instead.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, after Jorge Jesus, the manager at the time, tried to cool tensions between the players and president, Bruno de Carvalho reversed his decision, but still vowed to punish his players for their display against Atletico Madrid.
Sporting went on to win the second leg of the Europa League tie 1-0, a result which was ultimately insufficient to qualify for the next round but could have been so different on another day after an admirable performance from the Portuguese side which saw them create several dangerous opportunities.
The home leg victory over Atletico was then followed by a further three victories on the bounce in the league and, on the penultimate day of the league season, after a 0-0 draw against Benfica, Sporting lept ahead of their opponents and city rivals into second place in the table by virtue of head-to-head-record, occupying the final Champions League spot with just a single match to go, appearing to snatch a spot in Europe's most prestigious competition right at the death.
Things were really looking up for Sporting, who, with significant momentum heading into the final match, knew that a victory against Maritimo would guarantee them a spot in next season's Champions League qualification stage.
The source of the violence
However, a trip to Maritimo's stadium in Funchal is always a difficult challenge; based on the island of Madeira and thus requiring a significant journey for mainland clubs that face them, Maritimo always have a highly respectable home record and, as such, are one of the best sides in Portugal outside the big four.
Yet with so much at stake for Sporting - and Maritimo only with the motivation of getting one over one of the big clubs in the nation - a Sporting victory was still widely anticipated, with Benfica reeling that they likely threw away second place so close to the season's end.
But it didn't go to plan; Maritimo took the lead 31 minutes into the match, with Bas Dost responding just one minute later after flicking a Gelson Martins low cross into the back of the net.
Playing simultaneously, both Benfica and Sporting were level at half time - Benfica being held 0-0 by Moreirense, while Maritimo went into the break at 1-1. Sporting were still clinging onto second place in the league, despite not winning themselves, relying on Moreirense to do them a favour and continue to hold Rui Vitoria's Benfica to a draw.
However, the stalemates didn't last long, with Benfica taking the lead just 7 minutes after half time thanks to a Jonas penalty. Sporting, now in need of a goal, inevitably went on the attack and created a few half-chances, but Maritimo were matching them in every department and indeed, in the 92nd minute of the game, after a very tame shot by Ghazarian was fumbled into the back of the net by the usually reliable Rui Patricio, Sporting's hopes of returning to the Champions League were dashed. At the time, a devastating blow to Sporting both financially and competitively, but also, as we would soon find out, the catalyst for unthinkable disaster at the Portuguese club.
In the aftermath of the game, anger was evident both from the club president and from the fans and, just a few days after the events in Madeira, an appalling attack was committed on the Sporting players by a group of masked fans at the training complex in Alochete, where the players were preparing for the upcoming Portuguese Cup Final against Aves.
It was unthinkable, unbelievable, unfathomable and, perhaps, irreparable. Images quickly emerged of Sporting's star striker Bas Dost being left with a nasty, deep cut on his head as a result of the violence, while reports emerged that several other players - and the manager- were also physically assaulted too as sirens blared out around the training complex. There were also allegations that the club's president, Bruno de Carvalho, was the man responsible for instigating the attack, a deeply horrific thought and a suggestion de Carvalho wholeheartedly denied.
With a cup final on the horizon - and a place in next season's Europa League group stage seemingly on the line, this was a disastrous psychological blow for the Sporting players, and it was incomprehensible why even such a minuscule minority of 'fans' would choose to cause so much devastation to their own club.
A final defeat - and further turmoil at the Lisbon-based club
Ultimately, the violence at Alcochete led to top scorer Bas Dost missing the match as a result of the injuries sustained, and Sporting went on to lose 2-1. On any other day, the thought of Sporting losing a cup final to Desportivo das Aves, a side based in a village of just 8,000 inhabitants, would be shocking and mystifying in equal measure, but due to the deplorable events which occurred only days earlier, the result was perhaps, in hindsight, inevitable. Aves should be given the credit they deserve though; on a tiny fraction of the budget available to heavyweights Sporting and having never won a trophy in their entire 88-year history, they took full advantage of their opponents struggles and still had to earn their victory.
But as the village of Aves celebrated, Sporting's problems continued over the subsequent weeks and, when Bruno de Carvalho blocked Rui Patricio's potential move to Wolves, demanding an additional £2million on top the agreed fee, Patricio took matters into his own hands, advancing to terminate his own contract, citing a lack of security in the workplace and fearing for his life after the violent scenes at Alcochete.
Over the subsequent weeks, no fewer than eight senior players followed the lead of their captain and also sought to unilaterally terminate their contracts, including several of their most senior - and valuable - players in William Carvalho, Bruno Fernandes, Gelson Martins and Bas Dost. Sporting were set to lose out on an estimated £200million as a result of a lack of payment for the services of some of their most prized assets.
With several players indicating that they would be happy to return if Bruno de Carvalho were to step down as president, the controversial figure stood firm and stated that remaining in charge was in the best interests of the club. To further add to the mayhem, manager Jorge Jesus then departed, making his highly anticipated move to Al-Hilal in Saudi Arabia and escaping the madness encapsulating the Lisbon-based club. To find a suitable replacement for Jesus of sufficient calibre, with all the turmoil surrounding the club at the time, was bound to be difficult, and eventually equally controversial Siniša Mihajlović was appointed as the new manager by Bruno de Carvalho.
Bruno de Carvalho's departure: a brighter future?
Despite the stubborn nature of Bruno de Carvalho, who was adamant that he was the right man to lead Sporting, elections were called to determine whether he would remain at the helm, a potentially crucial vote for the very future of Sporting as a major player in Portuguese and European football. Ultimately, Bruno de Carvalho was voted out convincingly, with approximately 70% of the votes indicating a lack of confidence in the man who had held office for five years.
One final twist followed as newly-appointed manager Sinisa Mihajlović was sacked just nine days after arriving, and the experienced Jose Peseiro was hired in his place, a far from inspiring appointment having failed to impress at both Braga and Porto in recent seasons and having failed to last more than a single season as manager of his last five clubs.
Nevertheless, with his appointment, stability seems to have finally been restored as the club look to advance into a new era without Bruno de Carvalho. With key players Bruno Fernandes and Bas Dost returning to the club after being two of the nine players to terminate their contracts, and with the experienced Nani rejoining for his third stint at the club, there's room for optimism at the Portuguese outfit. Additionally, despite both William Carvalho and Gelson Martins departing the club, the former to Real Betis and the latter likely to Atletico Madrid, Sporting look set to receive significant compensation for both as they look to avoid the situation ending up in a legal battle, while the club still remain incredibly confident of receiving significant payment from Wolves for Portugal's current number one, Rui Patricio.
Things are finally starting to look up for Sporting, who seem to have turned a corner in one of the darkest spells in the club's history, and their hope of winning the title for the first time in well over a decade remains an ambition that could still be fulfilled in the not too distant future.