Sporting Lisbon's bittersweet title win after 19 years of hurt

    Players toss Sporting's head coach Ruben Amorim into the air after winning  the league title.

    (CNN)The year was 2002. The Euro became the official currency for most countries in the European Union, Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her Golden Jubilee and Brazil won the World Cup with two goals from Ronaldo -- O Fenômeno -- in the final against Germany.

    Halfway across the world, another Ronaldo -- Cristiano -- had yet to make his debut for Sporting Lisbon's first team. That would only happen the following year.
    Fast forward to 2021 and Sporting has just won its first league title after a 19-year interlude — a period that has seen the club overshadowed by the likes of Benfica and Porto and at one point stare into the financial abyss.
      This season's league title triumph, though undeniably exciting, is not just unexpected and surprising but also bittersweet.
        Coming into the season Sporting was anything but the favorite. The club is one of the top three teams in the country, with a rich history in a multitude of sports, including football, in which it is known for being a reservoir of young talent.
        Its football academy has developed the likes of Ronaldo, Luís Figo, Paulo Futre, Nani and Ricardo Quaresma, among other talented players. Few other clubs can brag about producing not one, but two Ballon d'Or winners.
        But coming into this season, its rivals, Porto and Benfica, had spent considerably more in the offseason. Benfica almost lured Uruguayan star Edinson Cavani, who ended up at Manchester United. Their budgets -- after many league titles, participation in European competitions and successfully selling talented players to bigger markets for large sums -- are simply much greater than Sporting's.
          And most of that is the club's own fault.
          Sporting Lisbon players celebrate after winning the title.

          A troubled history

          After its last win in 2002, Sporting seemed to be on the right path. The club had just won its second league title in three years, after a similar 18-year-drought, and it had young talented players breaking through the ranks.
          The team seemed destined for a perfect season in 2005, when it hosted the UEFA Cup (now known as the Europa League). With just two games to play in the season, Sporting sat in first place and had secured a spot in the UEFA Cup Final, where it would face CSKA Moscow.
          That week -- when it lost to Benfica 1-0 at the Estádio da Luz to finish third, and then 3-1 to CSKA Moscow in its own stadium, after being ahead by 1-0 at half time -- was just too brutal to bear, even if you weren't a fan.
          Since then, the club has flirted with the title once or twice, coming close but never quite deserving it and never quite making it.
          Like in Germany, private investors are not allowed to have a majority stake in Portuguese teams, so "sócios" -- supporters who pay a monthly fee -- vote to choose a club president every five years.
          Although this democratic system has its advantages -- allowing fans to be involved -- it has one big downside: when the results don't come, it's incredibly hard to unify the club.
          Over the past 20 or so years, different factions have warred for control at Sporting, rarely taking into account what the silent majority of fans actually want. Prioritizing short-term successes over long-term goals, most steered the club further into the abyss, increasing its debt and worsening its finances.
          Sporting's darkest period came when members of one of the team's official supporter groups -- empowered by a controversial administration -- broke into club grounds and assaulted the football team in 2018, after it had failed to qualify for the Champions League.
          Many of the players, including many up-and-coming stars, left the club and joined other teams, mostly abroad. Only a few, including current Manchester United star, Bruno Fernandes, agreed to re-sign and stay at the club.
          For many, it seemed like there was no coming back, when half of the team left over an incident the that majority of more than three million fans saw as abhorrent.
          Since then, Sporting has been forced to go back to what it's done best: develop talented footballers. Although there were signs of things to come, no one could have predicted that strategy would soon reap rewards.