The World Cup is in full swing in Brazil, and it’s time for some fun in the sun. However the fun loving Irish are not at the big show. Irish people regularly watch football (soccer) on TV, and participation numbers are impressive on the island. So why are Ireland not in the World Cup?
Unfortunately for soccer in Ireland the games on TV come mostly from England, and fans spend large sums of money travelling to Britain to watch Celtic, Man Utd, Liverpool, Arsenal etc. Recently the IFA (Irish Football Association) had to be given a large grant from the Northern Assembly in Belfast to put a roof on the stadium where Northern Ireland play international games.
These facts are a sad indictment of the soccer authorities in Ireland. Things are so bad both Irish National teams regularly fail to qualify for the major international tournaments including the World Cup. That’s right, BOTH teams. Ireland has not one but two national soccer teams, one for the northern part of the island and another for the southern part. For a small island with a total population of approx 6.5 million souls, how dumb is that?
Well, here’s how dumb it is; by qualifying for the current 2014 World Cup each participating country gets $8 million even if they get knocked out in the Group stages, with another $1.5 million for preparation, travel etc. That is a total of $9.5 million, which will be repatriated and spent at grass roots level in their respective countries. Instead, both Irish Football Federations again get 100% of nothing.
Neither Irish “National” team regularly qualifies for the Euros or the World Cup. Their weak performances hurt the co-efficient which makes it even harder to qualify for major tournaments. This means the Republic team is now a “third seed”, while the Northern team is in such dire straights that an away win against the Faroe Islands would be considered “a result”. It seems the FAI and the IFA don’t even care about the seeding system. It is no coincidence that as a “first seeds” even mediocre English teams regularly make it to the big tournaments because as “first seeds” they effectively avoid most serious opposition during qualification. England’s frailties are usually exposed when they play decent teams in the tournament proper, so far this year, in two World Cup games they have scored only two goals in total, and lie bottom of their group with zero points. But it is still a big cha-ching ($$$) for the English FA, with participation fees, sponsorships, a variety of World Cup promotional opportunities, and it could have been a lot better had their team progressed.
Ireland is shooting itself in the foot by running two football federations. In the current World Cup countries with populations smaller than Ireland, but with better domestic organization, are all having fun in the sun down in Brazil. In addition, they are enjoying the huge revenue streams for their domestic football federations. Countries such as Uruguay (pop: 3.7 million), Croatia (pop: 4.2 million), Bosnia (3.7 million), Costa Rica (pop: 4.6 million) and Nicaragua (pop: 6 million).
At the time of writing little Costa Rica have already made the last 16 in this years World Cup tournament, and pushed their prize money up to a minimum of $18.5 million. This year at least $420 million will be shared between all the World Cup participants. In addition to the huge sums of prize money for the Football Associations, there is a further $70 million set aside for the teams the players are under contract to. Nearly all Irish players are registered in Britain, not in the domestic Irish leagues, so in years gone by the vast majority of that money went to teams in England and Scotland, not Ireland. That is millions more in revenue lost to the Irish game because of the way soccer is structured and organized in Ireland.
The US soccer authorities have achieved more in the last 15 years than the Irish soccer associations have achieved in 115 years. This year, 10 of the US national World Cup team play their domestic football in Major League Soccer. A further 12 MLS players are representing 6 more countries, Equador, Hondorus, Costa Rica, Brazil, Spain and Australia. That means even more money flowing into the MLS to attrract players like Robbie Keane (Ireland), Henri (France), Beckham (England), Tim Cahill (Australia) etc. The US game continues to grow, a new franchise is slated to open in NY with strong connections to Manchester City, and there is talk of another possible franchise in Miami. Last night the US were seconds away from beating Portugal in a World cup group match, and securing a place in the last 16.
If you dig a bit deeper you start to get a sense of the depth of the Irish problem, and why the Irish football associations need to get their heads out of their respective “arses”. Take the domestic league structure. Ireland has a relatively small population, yet it has two domestic soccer leagues. Both leagues are semi-pro (part time) with no professional soccer league on the island. These 2 part time leagues consist of 12 teams in each league, with Dublin providing 4 teams in the FAI Premiership and Belfast supplying 5 teams in the IFA Premiership. Yet Belfast only has a population of half a million people. Surely consolidation into one professional Premiership League consisting of 12 teams playing at a higher standard, would benefit the game on the island. They could then hope to qualify for European competition, and attract Irish ex-pros back to the island as managers, coaches etc. Perhaps even setting up football academies in the major population areas. Right now there are no opportunities for the Irish ex-pros to attract them back to Ireland. The Irish ex-players either move onto opportunities outside the game, or pick up a few positions as pundits on BBC, RTE, Sky, ITV, or enter the fickle world of football management in Britain. Consequently all that experience and knowledge is lost to the Irish game and the Irish kids.
Currently neither Irish league successfully sends teams to the Europa League or Champions League on a consistent basis. Shamrock Rovers (Dublin) were the exception to the rule last year when they became the first Irish club to qualify for the group stages of any European competition. Just for making it to the Europa League group stages Shamrock Rovers picked up a cool 1 million Euro’s ($1.4 million). That is a lot of money that can be invested in the youth program, coaching, training facilities, the stadium, players etc.
For club teams the goal in any European league is to win the domestic League or Cup competitions, and gain entry to the UEFA Cup or Champions League with the TV riches that accompany these competitions. All major European football clubs know this. Each win and draw would have brought Shamrock Rovers additional revenue, but they were so far out of their depth they failed to win a single point and finished bottom of their group. Two years ago, Glasgow Celtic FC, a team from Scotland, a country which has about the same population as Ireland, earned around 22.2 million British pounds ($34 million) when they made it through the group stages to the last 16 of the Champions League. Seven million pounds ($11.5 million) of that was “TV money”, that is money brought to the table by media companies selling viewing rights around the globe. Denmark, a country with a smaller population than Ireland, sent FC København (FC Copenhagen?) into the Champions League this year. FC København collected 8.6 million Euro ($12 million) just for qualifying. In addition, under tournament rules, a team gets and additional 0.5 million for a tie and 6 million for a win. This means FC Kobenhavn also picked up another 0.5 million for their home draw against Juventus and 6 million for their 1-0 home win over Galatasary. That is a grand total of around 12 million Euro ($19 million). The same is true for other teams from small countries, like FC Basel from Switzerland, who amassed 8 points in their Champions League adventure, with 2 wins and 2 draws. By finishing third in their group they then went on to compete in the Europa League, collecting more riches before being knocked out in the quarter finals. New comers FK Austria Wein picked up 5 points in Champions League competition, amassing around 12 million Euro’s in the process.
Under the current structures Ireland has no chance of developing teams to compete, and will continue to lose access to much needed funds for developing the game on the island. And soccer does not operate in a vacuum in Ireland, it must compete for seats with the very popular Gaelic Football and a host of other participation sports.
Countries such as Belgium and Portugal are not that much bigger with populations of around 10 million people, yet teams such as FC Porto, Benfica, Sporting Lisbon and Anderlect compete regularly in European tournaments bringing home millions of Euro’s for the domestic game. Last year Glasgow Celtic even managed to pocket around 12 million Euro’s despite only wining one game and finishing bottom of the group. Of all the billions exchanging hands in the football world each year, a paltry 145,000 Euro’s made it back to Ireland. And that was a very good year for Ireland.
Is it time for root and branch reform? Ireland has good players but they all go to play in England. Again, once their career is over they do not return to Ireland to coach or manage teams, for there is nothing to attract them back. All that experience and knowledge of the game is lost to Ireland, but more tragically, it is lost to the Irish kids. By not having a proper football structure on the island the FAI and the IFA are allowing other countries to eat their lunch. They are losing money that could be used to develop the game at grass roots, coach young players, provide facilities throughout the country, training schools, playing fields etc. By not having the game properly structured the FAI and the IFA are doing a disservice to all Irish football fans and all the kids who love the game.
Time the Irish football fans demanded better for themselves and their kids. They should start by demanding changes at the FAI and IFA.