“OF THE TOP 17 European teams in the FIFA World Rankings, only four have better attendances than Ireland.”
Slagging off the Football Association of Ireland is an easy thing to do.
Defending them is almost unheard of.
Amongst the many grudges borne against the much maligned folk in Abbottstown is their perceived role in the many thousands of empty green seats we see when the international team play at the redeveloped Lansdowne Road.
On Friday night, in the wake of Ireland’s 2-0 win in the penultimate Group B fixture in Andorra, the RTE panel led the calls for people to turn up to Tuesday’s crucial game against Armenia. They did so more in hope than expectation. So, why is a country that was able to attract regular crowds of 60,000 plus five years ago, now struggling so badly to support the national team?
The FAI’s corporate offering, the ‘Vantage Club’, has been a spectacular failure, with the vast majority of the 12,300 prawn sandwich seats in the new arena unsold. How they lashed John Delaney over it. After all, the IRFU sold all theirs in advance.
The IRFU struck gold in 2008 and 2009 when Irish rugby was riding on the crest of a wave. A grand slam title did no harm and with the country just about to head into recession, people still had money.
Traditionally a working class game, the corporate concept is not exactly a natural fit for football in Ireland.
The first mistake the FAI made was their agreement to jointly build a stadium that had a capacity of just over 51,700, yet amazingly 24% of the seats were tailored for corporate customers. The IRFU wasted no time getting rid of theirs, something Delaney and co didn’t (couldn’t?) do.
Straight away, the football capacity of the stadium is down to 40,000. Real football fans don’t want to sip wine over a 3 course dinner, while watching from a padded seat, especially in times of recession. The plans for the stadium, of course, were drawn up long before the economic troubles hit, but where was the plan B?
So, while we lament over the ifs and buts of the corporate element, how do our so called poor figures compare to the rest of Europe?
First off let us look at the population. Ireland currently lies outside the top 100 list in terms of world population but is ranked 27th of the 51 teams in European football.
Taking the average attendance of all these nations into consideration, Ireland lay a credible 8th with an average attendance of just under 42,000 for the current qualifying campaign.
An expected crowd of 44,000 on Tuesday night could push that up ever so slightly bringing us closer to Scotland and Netherlands, who both boast figures in the region of 43,000. Above this, only France, England, Germany, Turkey and Georgia have better average attendances than Ireland. Four of those countries have populations in excess of 70 million.
The visit of Russia saw 50,411 people make the trip to Dublin 4, which is not only the largest attendance in Group B, but places Ireland in the top 10 highest attendances. Now compare our overall figures with those of the Russians, a country with a population in excess of 140 million?
Another important fact to consider is that the away end in Lansdowne has been virtually empty since the stadium reopened. When Croke Park was in use, we had an away end full of Italians, French, German, Brazilians. The Polish brought 21,000 for a friendly. You could almost count the number of Macedonians and Andorrans at them two games on one hand. Only Slovakia brought a semi-decent crowd, in the region of 2,000, while the mighty Russians attempt at filling their section was pitiful.
So, maybe things not so bad after all? The Croke Park years gave a false sense of security to all things sports related in Ireland. Yes the stadium was heaving for practically every match, yes we were the envy of Europe, but let us not forget one thing; Ireland was a different country in the middle of the last decade.
When recession hits, football will suffer more than any other sport. Irish football fans are more likely to be block layers than bankers, are more likely to shovel concrete than sell shares and more likely to live in a semi-detached in Ballyfermot than a plush residence in Blackrock.
Ticket prices have been a factor, though they have been significantly reduced for the 11/12 season with more kids concessions also available. Last season’s FAI cup final was a huge success, as tickets sold for €10 led to an attendance of 36,000 on a day when the FAI finally did something to impress the grass roots fans of the nation.
That same week, the reigning World Champions South Africa came to town in rugby, with 16,000 empty seats, a sign perhaps that the worm had turned on the IRFU also. They too have been forced to abandon their extortionate pricing bundles.
“Tis the poor football, all Trappas fault” they say. If you take the top 17 ranked European teams in current FIFA World Rankings, only four of them have better attendances than Ireland. Even the mighty Portuguese, Italians and current World champions Spain would be proud to have our attendance figures.
The quality of the opposition right now is not exactly world class either and the fact that the only time we went close to a capacity attendance, was the visit of Russia is testimony to this. The prospective visits of Germany, Sweden and Austria for the 2014 Wordl Cup qualifying campaign should whet the appetite a bit more than Slovakia, Armenia and Macedonia. Brian Kerr’s Faroese should add more of an edge than Andorra. Every little helps as they say.
Such so-called glamour opposition together with the “Croker appeal” and block booking schemes, led to the likes of Cyrus, Montenegro and Serbia playing in front of crowds in excess of 50,000. A crucial point that is missed time and time again is that the old Lansdowne had a capacity for all competitive games of just over 33,000 and I believe, our base of hard-core and loyal supporters, lies somewhere in that figure. I do not recall many boxes and suits back then, do you?
The biggest appetite of all however, comes from within. As we face the Armenians, a win can not only put the icing on the play off place, but possibly secure a more favourable playoff draw on Thursday.
Poland and Ukraine are calling. We do not have the best footballing team in the world, we all know that, but what we have is a bunch of players, playing to a system that is, despite what the critics say, working.
Every green seat filled with a green jersey can make a difference. The team needs it. Saipan seems oh so long ago now, doesn’t it?