In 2002, two outrageously talented young wingers took their first steps in senior football for Portuguese champions Sporting (opens in new tab).
Cristiano Ronaldo and Ricardo Quaresma would waste little time in displaying their God-given gifts with a ball at their feet.
Interestingly, at the time it was the latter who was the more frequently tipped to achieve greatness on the global stage. Quaresma’s meandering career and Ronaldo’s ascension to legend is a perfect illustration that talent isn’t the only thing you need to reach the very top.
Fast-forward 13 years and Sporting again have two promising wingers operating in tandem who are being touted for a brilliant future. Gelson Martins, 20 years old, and Matheus Pereira, 19, are both getting regular playing time – and making the most of it – for the Primeira Liga leaders. Neither has looked out of place as they have made the jump to elite-level football. Both were on the scoresheet and among the team’s best players in the Lions’ 4-2 Europa League win at Lokomotiv Moscow last week.
Above: Gelson scores at 2:35 then brilliantly sets up Matheus at 4:00
Fans of the Lisbon giants are thrilled at the club’s re-emergence as title contenders under new coach Jorge Jesus, but they are equally enthused at the dazzling skills shown by the exciting duo tearing down each flank. That’s saying something at a club where exceptional wing play is par for the course.
Sporting’s Alcochete Academy is world renowned for consistently producing footballers of the highest order – and specifically in relation to wingers, the club seems to have a magic formula. Sporting academy alumni Paulo Futre, Luís Figo, Simão Sabrosa, Nani, Quaresma and Ronaldo have represented Europe’s biggest club sides in Spain, England and Italy. Can Gelson and Matheus (who go by their first names in Portugal) follow in the footsteps of their illustrious predecessors? Here's a closer look at each player...
When Jorge Jesus sensationally switched allegiances from cross-city rivals Benfica in the summer, concerns were raised that Sporting’s youth players may be overlooked by the new man in the dugout: the charismatic coach did wonders at Benfica, but a recurring criticism was his refusal to blood home-grown talent.
However, JJ allayed those fears from the outset by making Martins a regular part of the team. The Cape Verde-born winger has featured in all but two of Sporting’s league matches so far, making a total of 20 appearances in 2015/16.
Extraordinarily lithe and blessed with lightning-fast feet, the slippery Gelson is a traditional winger with an unerring ability to jink past his marker before delivering accurate crosses or passes.
He has thrived at international level for Portugal’s youth teams, enjoying outstanding tournaments at the 2014 European U19 Championship and 2015 U20 World Cup, scoring spectacular goals in both.
He has since made a seamless graduation to Portugal’s U21 team, and even has an outside chance of the Euro 2016 squad. As Jesus said last week: “Gelson is no longer a promise; he is a confirmation.”
Matheus almost left Sporting at the tail end of last season as a contract dispute tempted the highly rated teenager to join Monaco. The French club are coached by former Sporting manager Leonardo Jardim, who knows all about the 19-year-old’s potential.
But in March 2015 the player and club resolved their differences and Matheus put pen to paper on a five-year contract, which incorporated a whopping €60 million buyout clause. “Sporting have invested in me and I want to prove that the investment was not made in vain,” he said. Given his progress this season, Sporting must be delighted they managed to close the deal.
Brazil-born but based in Portugal since he was 12 years old, the winger combines speed and excellent dribbling with a wondrous left foot. Matheus has scored five goals in just seven first-team matches. He made his senior debut for Sporting in a Portuguese Cup tie against lower-league Vilafranquense in October and marked the occasion with two goals. Just five days later he was again selected for the first team, this time for the Europa League game against Albanian outfit Skenderbeu, and produced another brace.
His stunning start to top-level football augurs well for a winger who has drawn comparisons with Cristiano. It remains to be seen, however, whether or not Matheus – who has dual nationality – will opt for one day playing alongside the Portugal captain. Matheus displays the typically South American penchant for pointing to the heavens in his goal celebrations, and the youngster has also asked for divine help in making the decision about which national team to represent. “I ask God to help me decide. I’m in a country that received me very well and I feel good here, but I was born in Brazil. I can say I love both countries.”
For now, Sporting fans care little about that issue as they revel in a championship challenge fired by the latest two wing sensations turning out every other week at the José Alvalade stadium.
Jesus could be forgiven for repeating the words of former Sporting coach Laszlo Boloni, the man who launched the careers of Ronaldo and Quaresma almost a decade-and-a-half ago.
“It was not I who gave them a special gift, but it was important for them to work hard under my guidance,” said the Romanian. “We lived many good times at Sporting.”
Raised on tales of the finest exponents of exciting wing play, Sporting’s newest generation of fans will be hoping to witness legends of their own.
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