Eoin Coyne explains the self preservation of the FAI and how they cost Limerick FC a great opportunity to take on the mighty Barcelona.
This Saturday, Celtic will take on Inter in the ‘International Champions Cup’ in Limerick. If the rumours are true then each participating club will receive £3m per game, that’s good money for a friendly tournament. No doubt it’ll be great for southern based Celtic fans to see the team in the flesh without having to trek all the way to Dublin but amid all that mirth and revelry spare a thought for Limerick FC, a club who may look at this international revelry going on right on their doorstep with some justifiable bemusement.
In 2010 Limerick had pulled off something of a coup and had managed to wrangle an appearance from Barcelona for a glamour friendly. A ballsy move that most clubs wouldn’t even countenance but they managed it, somehow. All that remained was for the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) to sanction the game. They didn’t. Why? There were a myriad of reasons listed in an official presser at the time. Mostly modern corporate bollocksology speak, nine points in total but this one gives you the best gist of the situation:
The FAI has already made clear the reasons why it did not grant permission to Limerick FC to play Barcelona on July 31 because a) the Association has third party commercial agreements which prevent it from granting the game in stadium with a capacity in excess of 15,000 and b) the FAI is in negotiations with FC Barcelona itself in relation to a visit of Aviva Stadium and c) because the Association is obliged to retain ownership of the July 31 date because of Airtricity League fixtures. Limerick FC were aware of all of the above prior to making their announcement on Thursday evening.
Like a pseudo protection racket they saw that Limerick did this all off their own steam, saw that they weren’t getting a taste and pulled the plug on the whole deal. Limerick pointedly responded to the FAI’s points with articulate, well made and logical arguments but by then it was all irrelevant the friendly had been killed dead. Although point 6 does at least point to an absurdist sense of humour that seems to rush to the fore via official press releases;
Under the participation agreement which all clubs signed, the FAI is entitled to enter any commercial agreements which it sees beneficial to the game. The game Limerick FC have referred to would benefit just one club. The FAI is obliged to operate in the interests of the Airtricity League as a whole.
And indeed they are. They said it themselves. They are obliged to operate in the best interests of the league as a whole. The stuff above only scratches the surface of that particular case but it is just one in a series of PR disasters between the league and the FAI since the two bodies merged in 2006. That’s 10 years now so we can reasonably ask the question; are the FAI operating in the best interests of the league as a whole? When Limerick’s friendly was cancelled in who’s best interest was that? When a ‘league of Ireland’ selection was obliterated by Manchester United at the inaugural game at the rebuilt Lansdowne Road did those players or their clubs get some positive exposure from that?
The FAI would tell you that yes, of course they did and of course the FAI cares about the league but even as they’d be telling you that they’d also be waving pictures of Robbie Brady and Shane Long in front of your face because that’s where the association’s primary concern lies because that’s the one facet of Irish football that sponsors still give the vaguest of fucks about. In Ireland the national team is king. No, that’s wrong – In Ireland the English Premiership is king but the national team are generally held in high regard once they remain moderately successful.
The Illusion of Care
Ever since football exploded into mainstream popularity and soaked through to the bones of Irish culture from Euro ’88 through World Cup ’94, the FAI have been pretty sharp in monetising that popularity. From cheap tat merchandise to sponsorship deals up the wazoo. To this day Ireland were the first (only?) national team to adorn their shirt with a corporate logo. You cannot buy a non-sponsor adorned shirt, makes the heart burst with nationalistic pride to see the innovation we have given the world of football.
Of course pre-merger the FAI had no official obligation to the league and it showed. The league had a real golden-era run but that was before the advent of regular TV football. Great crowds, good teams, good players – a lot of legendary players come from this era but it lasted up until the exact point that football from the UK became more freely accessible via TV and travel. It is genuinely mind-boggling to think that 10,000 – 20,000 crowds were not that uncommon. Most clubs currently operate at around a tenth of that number. Aside from the odd mini-revolution or abberational high water mark the trend has been steadily downward from the 1960s onward. Individual clubs being successful will always spike attendances but if Cork pulling in 5,000 at a home game gives cause for optimism then Athlone turning out to less than 100 sets a stark contrast.
Now I know what you’re going to ask next, it’s been at the back of your mind all the way through this hasn’t it? What about all those wonderful Irish football fans who invaded France, but in a nice way, during Euro 2016? You saw them change the tyre for the old couple and serenade the baby on the train and hug the police and not throw any chairs at anyone. Best fans in the world don’t you know! These wonderful patygoers loving football and life, why dont you get those people to fill up your national league’s delapidated stadiums – sure they love football!
A contentious phallacy but a phallacy all the same. Irish people don’t love football half as much as we love events. We are event whores. Don’t believe me? Garth Brooks sold out 4 nights here before the gigs were cancelled (snigger) we’ll literally go to any old fucking crap once it’s a big event and lots of people will be there. League of Ireland holds about as much appeal to those guys as a Garth Brooks concert does to anyone with taste. Everyone wants to be there for the glamour part, so even though Lansdowne Road rarely sells out for either friendlies or qualifiers there was a mad scramble for finals tickets. 200,000 ticket applications or something like that – thats the Euros figure – the Garth Brooks figure was considerably higher.
I guess it comes down to the individual – personally I couldn’t stand there on the streets of Bordeaux proclaiming myself part of a band of the greatest fans in the world whilst our own domestic league is rotting from the inside out, kicked into the corner like some kind of web-toed freak-child and told to shut up and be quiet. There’s a certain irony to that ‘best fans’ tag though because there are legitimate brilliant football people in this country who are typically voluntary and get little to no adulation for what they do for Irish football.
The real Irish football heroes are not the guys serenading french infants on trains or helping pensioners change tyres amid an orgy of back-slapping self congratulatory mirth – they are the people doing the unglamorous volunteer work that allows football in this country to continue to exist. They don’t do it in a two week window in the glare of a million camera phones and every press agency in the world, they receive little to no adulation from a fawning Irish press they do it week in week out because they love the game and their clubs and they want to make sure those things are still around for the next generation of players and fans.
Cesspool on the Potomac
Since the league and FAI merger three clubs have gone bust – Kilkenny City (2007) went and took the best away trip in the league and Dublin City (2006) and Monaghan United (2012) both bowed out before the season even ended adding a real sense of farce to proceedings. Is that all on the FAI? Of course not, no association can take responsibility for the often stupid things chairmen and / or boards are wont to do and bad financial management has been endemic in the league in the past. Though affiliation fees of €15,000 and an archaic fines system seem excessive considering the league winner overall pockets just $100,000. It also hammers home the points to the stay away fans that the league is a basket case, clubs can’t even keep afloat to the end of the season. Poor public perception is a massive problem for a league with Scotland and England just a short flight or boat trip away. Add in the ‘rustic’ facilities at some League of Ireland grounds and you have a recipe for apathy and a perfect storm of not-so-sublime indifference.
The move to summer football was the last radical change made in the league. If it ever had any positive effect on attendances it appears that was a short term aberration as crowds have in general receded to the usual levels outwith the successful Dundalk and Cork sides. European progress has been mixed. Dundalk are on the cusp of something huge with their Champions League play-off and are guaranteed to at least emulate Shamrock Rovers achievement of quaifying for the Europa League group stages but it must be said that Dundalk’s achievement, much like those of any Irish club who does well in Europe, is not thanks to the involvement of the FAI in the league; it is in spite of it.
— FAIreland (@FAIreland) August 2, 2016
The FAI riled up a fair few folk by tweeting a gushing statement about Dundalk’s achievement in turning over BATE in the last round but their best faux pas was to come. In the form of a grant. Only the FAI could make a PR disaster of giving clubs free money. Each club was to be awarded a grant towards a 5-year strategic plan (no, I don’t know either) and each club was to receive the princely sum of €5,000 towards said plan. Here are some more numbers for you to ingest – the FAI made AT LEAST €11 million from Euro 2016. That’s just from qualifying, points on the board and advancing to the next round and not including any additional sponsorship deals of which there were plenty. FAI chief executive John Delaney earns €360,000 per year. $11 million – $360,00 – Five fucking grand.
Derry City – the bold Derry City were the first to call bullshit on the grant, happily St. Patricks Athletic soon followed with a strongly worded statement of their own that now affords me moral high ground over fans of other clubs. In all seriousness those statements are here and here and well worth a read to gauge the anger at the FAI and that is at an official level. Your average fan in the stands will be a lot more colourful when discussing the FAI, they are the great uniter – universally loathed throughout the league in a way that surpasses even Shamrock Rovers.
There has been a slew of these kinds of pieces over here post Euro 2016 as everyone asks aloud ‘what’s to be done with our problem-child?’ Here’s another number; 8 – the number of players in this summer’s squad who cut their teeth in the domestic league. Quality is not an issue. We have good players here and we have dedicated coaches but not enough of them and nowhere near enough formally qualified ones and then there’s that perception; attendances are shite and facilities are shite and the football’s shite and nothing’s as shiny as in England and yet still…STILL 8 full internationals.
If the people of this country who profess to love football so much would bring just a little bit, just a fraction of that love to their local team it could make the world of difference but that’s a fanciful notion and I’m a bitter cynic to the end so maybe an ominous vision of things to come instead? Maybe if we continue to neglect our own league and the FAI continues to exploit the national team and ignore the domestic game then maybe that production line will dry up; then we’ll end up with the national team we deserve.