If a single image could sum up the catastrophic state of soccer in Ireland, it would be Enda Kenny, Peter Robinson, Martin McGuinness and Philip Browne, head of the Irish Rugby Football Union, tossing around an oval ball at the unveiling of the all-Ireland bid for the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
The IRFU announced their bid, in conjunction with the Irish government and the Northern Ireland executive, early in December and, while the GAA are expected to supply the majority of stadiums for the proposal, not one dedicated soccer venue is expected to feature- and with good reason.
While the FAI’s successful bid for Lansdowne Road to host a series of group games at the 2020 European Championships was an achievement for the association, the potential success of the IRFU’s bid dwarfs it in scale and significance – not just for Ireland as a state, but for the future of sport on this island.
The exact make-up of the IRFU’s bid hasn’t yet been fully revealed. Three dedicated rugby stadiums – Lansdowne Road, Thomond Park and Ravenshill – will surely lead the bid, however the IRFU will be dependent on the GAA for rental of the remainder, with Croke Park presumably to house the final.
The bid received an early blow when Belfast High Court overturned a decision to grant permission for the dramatic expansion of Casement Park – above the objections of residents – to a 38,000 all-seater white elephant, however the bid should be strong with or without a second Belfast venue as both governments have pledged to provide extensive grant aid to the GAA.
Conspicuous by their absence from the discussion, on both sides of the border, are soccer stadiums. While Lansdowne is, technically, a joint venture between the FAI and IRFU and Limerick FC played in Thomond Park during the 2013 and 2014 seasons, no dedicated soccer venue has thus far entered into the discussion, nor is it likely to.
The smallest venue at the 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand was the 15,000-seater Arena Manawatu in Palmerston North, while Exeter’s 12,500-capacity Sandy Park will be the smallest at next year’s tournament in England – sadly, no dedicated soccer venue in the Republic of Ireland comes close.
John Delaney’s much-publicised plan to renovate Bohemians’ Dalymount Park is unlikely to increase the capacity of the one-time home of Irish soccer beyond a paltry 10,000, while Tallaght Stadium – where Shamrock Rovers play – would require multi-million euro investment to reach the same capacity. Neither club attracts more than a quarter of that figure on a regular basis.
Windsor Park in Belfast, which has been the recipient of the same grant funding as Casement Park, could conceivably hold 20,000+ with extensive renovation – and at least offers the possibility of well-attended international games – but all-conquering owners Linfield’s financial advantage as a result of their arrangement with the association is already a bone of contention.
Whatever way you look at it, the outlook is bleak for soccer in this country. For decades, soccer and rugby were the poor relation of the footballing family in Ireland, presiding over crumbling infrastructure while the GAA enjoyed near-total hegemony over Irish sport.
The success of Jack Charlton’s Boys in Green threatened to upset that power structure, yet the biggest game-changer came some years later when rugby union, in a bid to head off yet another schism, turned professional and it was the oval ball form that prompted a true sporting revolution in Ireland.
Whereas 20 years ago, you’d be lucky to get four figures at an interprovincial rugby game – and even during the early years of the Celtic League you’d do well to pack a couple of thousand into Donnybrook – today, Leinster, Munster and Ulster average 15,000 a game and could arguably cram in more had they larger stadiums.
Leinster invested heavily in upgrading Donnybrook – needlessly, as it happened, as by the time construction had finished they’d had to upgrade to tenancy at the much-larger RDS – while Munster and Ulster have each put huge sums (with IRFU and government support) into 20,000+ all-seater stadiums.
Soccer, by contrast, continues to languish in its own self-imposed stasis. Whether Sky TV, the GAA or Angela Merkel is to blame, Irish football has mastered the art of standing still – bumper international attendances during the 90s and early 00s barely filtered down to grassroots level, and the injection of Celtic Tiger cash into the likes of Shelbourne and Drogheda United produced entirely the wrong sort of legacy.
The boom in Irish soccer has resulted in no legacy except a pervading sense that poverty is a blessing. At least, a decade ago, soccer could console itself that the sport had gone some way toward gaining parity with Gaelic football in terms of participation and, indeed, being the most popular sport in many urban areas.
Even that is now under threat. The success of the Dublin Gaelic football team has engaged generations that had never known success, while successive European Cup wins have helped Leinster rugby to expand their franchise beyond the confines of the traditional private school cabal to soccer’s traditional working class constituency.
Irish rugby has demonstrated that while success breeds popularity, sustained success – and sustained popularity – requires smart planning and long-term investment. The IRFU got the balance right between on-field and off-field investment – investing the proceeds of professionalism into both playing personnel and infrastructure – and they’ve benefited from a thriving game and enviable infrastructure.
Soccer, by contrast, is in the unenviable position whereby the governing body has presided over a boom and has precious little to show for it – no infrastructure barring a heavily-indebted shared national stadium, a national team that struggles to qualify for anything and a domestic league that pays more in administration fees than it takes back in prize money.
The IRFU is unlikely to succeed in its bid for Rugby World Cup 2023, but a vote-swap with South Africa should make Ireland the likely venue for the 2027 tournament. That, theoretically, provides the soccer authorities with four more years to show they’re more than just the perennial ugly sister – but who’d bet on it happening?