Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Irish football has achieved miracles despite itself – imagine what’s possible if we get our act together

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THIS COLUMN HAS been accused of a miserable excess of pessimism about Irish football in recent weeks, so in the abiding sporting spirit of Answering The Critics, we put it to you that Ireland’s football achievements in the last 35 years are among the world’s greatest sporting miracles. 

That’s not to say we are resiling from our position that the FAI have decided to turn us into an international minnow. Every part of that argument still stands. We are trending in the wrong direction and all the pointers suggest we are some way off hitting rock bottom yet. 

But this it not to denigrate our achievements up to now. 

We have made it to four World Cups and three European Championships without ever dropping lower than 70th in either of the Fifa rankings despite the fact we are built on the cracked and trembling foundations of one of the most insane and deficient structures across all of Europe.  

Seriously, we’re such a miracle that the FAI should move their offices from Abbotstown to Knock. Our results would have the statues weeping multiple times a year. 

The State was born with an inherent hostility to football, and thus the sport spent a half-century labouring around the fringes of the Gaels’ fatwa. And though the walls of the old segregations have come tumbling down across the last few decades, football has continued to suffer for its place outside of the elite, now evident in the comparative poverty of the facilities paid for under the sports capital grants. Aside from the biases of those with their hands on the money pump, for too long the process of simply applying for grants was a complex business: this suited the GAA, rugby, and other affluent sports who had more solicitors among their membership.

The FAI also made the mistake of not conjuring the ingenious verbal trick of redefining football as an industry. That’s what the leaders of horse and greyhound racing did at the turn of the century, and it’s bagged them more than €1.5 billion in State revenue since.

But arguably the sport’s greatest stroke of bad luck is that it ended up being administered by the FAI. Bill Graham once explained the GAA to Hot Press readers by asking them to imagine a whole sport run by the USSR: the FAI became the equivalent of late-stage Yugoslavia. 

The FAI have historically been a weak organisation: they’ve spent too much of their existence serving the tea and biscuits at the internecine wargames of its exquisitely sceptical affiliates. This factionalism and politicking has not been solely contained to the blazers’ entertainment, as it has given rise to Irish football’s absurdly gapped and discontinuous structure. 

It’s still evident today. Our player production is too biased towards the major cities, but one of the reasons for this is that Cork and Dublin are the only counties in the country that offer all levels of football (that is youth, junior, intermediate and professional/LOI) and that’s only available to boys, not girls. 

Meanwhile, some underage leagues run during the winter, and others during summer. Some play every week, some play every other week. Some have followed the FAI’s diktats around small-sided games formats, and some have not. This is worse than a bad system: it’s a non-system.  

Add to this the fact that facilities are generally poor, too many games are called off because of rain, professional academies are receiving the same level of investment as Luxembourg and San Marino give theirs, and the domestic league has spent decades suffering the apathy of its governing body and the awesome cultural and commercial reach of Liverpool, United, Celtic, and Arsenal and…well, you can see we’re not working with much here. 

And yet we have produced John Giles, Liam Brady, Paul McGrath, Roy Keane, Dennis Irwin, Damien Duff, Robbie Keane, Emma Byrne, Katie McCabe, and Denise O’Sullivan. 

We have sent LOI teams into European group phases and qualified for major tournaments and beaten world champions and had players win Premier League medals and Champions League finals and Player of the Year gongs. 

And we have done all of this without, in the macro sense of things, even really trying. Nobody on earth would design our football structure from scratch: it is a patchwork of independent, underfunded republics held together by grievance and narrow-mindedness. 

But despite all of this, we continue to produce talented players. We don’t produce enough of them and we don’t do enough for the later physical developers, but the talent is still there. Evan Ferguson is one of the most exciting young players in Europe, regardless of his recent injury-hampered form. Andrew Omobamidele went from playing for Leixlip United to marking Cristiano Ronaldo in the space of 18 months. Chiedozie Ogbene and Liam Scales have used the League of Ireland as a step to the Premier League and Champions League respectively.  

There are factors in our favour. Football remains the country’s highest-participation team sport, and Irish kids have access to a culture of multi-sport upbringings, widely seen as bringing a major advantage: to take one small example, Benfica’s academy is now introducing different sports to their younger age-groups to try and simulate what Irish kids have on their doorstep. 

We can also rely on a strong spirit of volunteerism – 9% of the population (370,000 people) classed themselves as volunteers in Sport Ireland’s annual audit for 2022 – and we are an English-speaking nation in Western Europe, and so have ready access to the best ideas in every facet of the game. 

So, imagine how good we could be if we did really try? If we were to build a football industry here, it could kickstart a virtuous cycle: Croatia’s professional academies, for instance, gross on average more than €50 million a year from a yearly investment of less than €10 million. Imagine what kind of return we would get if we gave ourselves a chance? 

If the government would adequately fund academies and facilities? 

And if the FAI actually do their job and lead for once?

There is talk now of a vote among its General Assembly on the move to summer football and the cohering of the sport into a single pyramid, as envisaged under the pathways plan. Given the plan is the product of enormous consultation and the FAI board – who are elected and represent all parts of the General Assembly – have unanimously approved the pathways plan, any vote among the membership would be a colossal waste of time. 

That is time Irish football doesn’t have, for the reasons we have outlined before. 

We have achieved a few remarkable things while wallowing in our dysfunction.

Imagine if we decided to achieve things because of what we are doing, rather than in spite of ourselves? 

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