It’s World Cup time again, and as usual we won’t be seeing my adopted country Canada participating. And it’s a safe bet that we won’t see them at the next World Cup either.
Canada’s lack of success when it comes to the world’s favourite game is glaring (at least in the men’s game). The overwhelming popularity of ice hockey and the preponderance of other sports such as Canadian Football are largely to blame. Yet soccer has enjoys huge participation at youth level here. So how to account for the lack of success at the senior level?
For my money one of the main factors is the absence of a national league. Three Canadian teams currently play in the MLS, but that’s not enough for a country of 35 million people. While participation rates are high up to college level, there are few options for players once they leave the education system. And there is nowhere for coaches to hone their skills at a higher level either.
A Canadian league would plug that gap. Until such time as Canada has a widespread, well-supported professional league, I am fairly sure the country will languish in the FIFA rankings. (Just such a league is due to launch next year, but will take time to become established).
Unlike Canada, we have an established league in Ireland. And in the last few years it has produced a number of players who have gone on to represent Ireland at international level. That’s the missing link that is so patently absent in the Canadian system.
It can surely be argued that a country’s domestic club competition is a great indicator of the overall standard of the game in that country. And by that measure, the standard of the game in Ireland is improving. The League of Ireland has in fact become quite the incubator for talent in recent times. Daryl Horgan (ex-Dundalk) Sean Maguire (ex-Cork) and Graham Burke (Shamrock Rovers) are just three of the most recent internationals to emanate from the domestic league.
Unlike times gone by when we had to rely on the “granny rule” to find decent players to hand international caps to, or have passively waited for clubs in England to develop and refine our young players for us, we now have some semblance of control over the development of players at home. If nothing else, the league has the potential to expand the pool of upcoming players any Irish manager might like to keep tabs on for the future.
But the league can play a role in elevating our position in the football world in another way. At present, it’s fair to say that the FAI earns the bulk of their revenue from international games. But that overlooks the potential that exists in the club game these days, courtesy of UEFA’s increasing largesse when it comes to prize money for competing in its competitions. This generosity extends even for teams who only make it through a couple of qualifying rounds.
Take the prize money available to clubs who enter the Europa League. All clubs will receive €220,000 for participating in the preliminary round, an additional €240,000 for the first qualifying round, another €260,000 for the second qualifying round and then €280,000 for making the third qualifying round. Make the Play-off round and a club will net €300,000. If they qualify they make a base fee of €2,920,000.
There’s more where that came from for clubs participating in the Champions league. Make the second qualifying round and an Irish club would pick up €380,000. Cork City are reportedly guaranteed €800,000 just for participating this year. There is money to be made, but as with anything it would take a lot of investment to realize the benefits.
This is of course no general panacea for the league, as the prize money would only flow to top teams directly, but in the long term it could trickle down through increased transfer fees. There is also the overall economic benefit to the league in general from the higher profile of our top clubs. It could ultimately help supplement funds that the FAI provides grassroots football, as the association currently needs to service its debt on the Aviva stadium.
A relatively steady stream of money from UEFA’s annual revenue distribution to clubs seems like a better long term strategic bet than hoping for the large payoff that comes from qualifying for one of the two major quadrennial tournaments – the European Championships and the World Cup. We have been to one World Cup and two European Championship in the last 20 years. A steady stream of income into the league on an annual basis could put the domestic game on a firmer footing than the occasional once or twice a decade bonanza that we currently enjoy.
And there are potentially non-financial benefits too. Frequent participation in European competition will give Irish players and coaches exposure to the game on the continent. That sort of experience can only benefit any prospective international player. So it follows that a healthy domestic scene can contribute to a successful national team.
Living in Canada, I now appreciate the value a well-supported league can add. Club football is now the gold standard of the game, and that’s where the money is. To that end we as a country should surely be looking to back the clubs who go out and fly the flag for the country each and every year. It represents possibly a new opportunity to really raise our profile in the game. In the long run, it’s in Irish football’s best interests.