My Mam likes to tell the story of how she sacrificed a lunch break in 1972 to get the ultimate gift for her new fiancé (my Dad in case you’re wondering) – a pair of tickets for Pele’s Santos against a Bohs-Drums XI. She rarely likes to discuss what happened on the evening of that sell-out match in Dalymount Park however.
She grew up in a household of Wexford exiles. The ancient football heroes, Rackard brothers, an assortment of horses, greyhounds and showjumpers were the sporting topics she knew by heart. Adding in boxing, snooker and athletics meant little space for the degraded sport of “the garrison game”.
My Dad, an immigrant from Louth, also came from a staunchly GAA background that included athletics and horse sports. Hurling was never much on the radar (despite him winning a County Minor Championship for Ardee and my Grandmother playing in an All-Ireland Camogie Final) as my Granddad felt it was too dangerous.
Dad was a sports omnivore and he attended Oriel Park matches while still a secondary school student. At that time it was a risk as “the Ban” was still active and, as he was playing for the County Minors, even going to a game was a risk. He liked to joke that there was little risk of him getting the chop once he twigged the all powerful County Board Secretary at the Utrecht Intercities Fairs Cup match in 1968. The man recognised him too and simply said, “Wouldn’t it be great hey if we got into the next round, or won it altogether”.
At the time, it was possible to dream such big dreams in Louth and Ireland, though today the thought of an Irish side beating Dutch opponents and going on to win the Europa League is like the dream of Louth repeating 1957. There are two Hopes, Bob and No – and Bob’s long gone.
Anyway, my Mam proceeded to shame my Dad in Dalymount when the only footballer she knew – thanks to my Dad – Pele, took a shot that fizzed over the bar. My Mam cheered and clapped shouting “Well done Pele!”. I don’t think I need to explain her reason and why it was embarrassing for my Dad.
Despite that, he married her a year later in Rome and in July 1973 took her to see the Johnny Giles-Derek Dougan Shamrock Rovers XI (really an All-Ireland team) play Brazil at Lansdowne Road. In modern times this would be a full on “event” – World Cup Champions versus an All-Ireland XI and bring lots of thrill seekers to the Dublin 4 venue. And such events work in Ireland, we only need look at the Liverpool-Rovers match at the Aviva as testament.
So why is it then that successive governments failed to deliver on such potential? Why is it that successive Taoisigh, Ministers, TDs and other associated jackanapes constantly found it easy to attach themselves to victorious teams or athletes like parasites to our intestines, yet fail to put together a sustainable model for Irish sport and sports events?
Vanity projects like the Bertie Bowl destroyed an actual sustainable project in Eircom Park which would have given Ireland a massive boost for sports and sports events. Yet when the Fianna Fail machine took down the project they took with it a good man in Bernard O’Byrne which set in train where the FAI is today – an incestuous little pit of self-interest lobby groups (including the League of Ireland clubs) that make Game of Thrones look like Tellytubbies.
I do understand that the associations/federations/unions have to answer for themselves and that the Irish Government is limited in one sense, though this is a great cop out. When there is no central planning from infrastructure to healthcare to insurance that is not fully corrupted or doled out to insider cronies or failed politicians, what hope then for sports and sports events?
While understandable that in a country of our size it is often difficult to engage in anything other than parish politics, there still needs to be a more professional, business and global view. It is not possible to obtain, organise and stage large scale sporting events without Government assistance, both financial and logistical.
No country staging regular events that matter does so without a public-private partnership and those who do so successfully, Germany, USA, Turkey, Egypt, look long-term when making such plans.
In this first part I’ll round off with a “good” public-private partnership for sports events.
Can anyone name a leading Egyptian tennis player? Male or female? No? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Four years ago a Russian female tennis pro based herself in Cairo and together with her partner lobbied local government and businesses to host more tournaments and organise training programmes for children. They argued that not alone was there abundant talent in need of central support, more important, they needed competition.
Since even the most liberal Egyptians would be conservative in allowing sons and daughters travel abroad, they reasoned that there could be a balance. Kids could get the training, support and competitive experience at home and not have to travel the circuit at the mercy of unscrupulous coaches or organisers.
To tip the scales in their favour, they met with a hotel owner who had installed good tennis courts and sports facilities in Sharm El Sheikh. They put together a package of female $10,000 ITF pro tournaments which would deliver an average of 32 pro players and 10 coaches/parents, every week for a year. The Egyptian Tennis Federation, Hotel and Local Government guaranteed the $10,000 weekly fund and an expense fund for officials – $100,000 per year. In 2015 they have average 34 players per draw and 18 coaches/parents. A public-private partnership investment (in the form of grants and loans) of under $750,000 per year to benefit public and private coffers and support young players.
For players beginning their career (Egyptian or otherwise) or those in need of ranking points, this is perfect! Players come for a tournament and stay for a week, even if they get knocked out early, as they can play doubles or simply train in decent weather. As someone who has sent players to Egypt for these events, it has paid off every time with players getting a chance to pick up points as well as train and hit.
The parallel male event has boosted the area’s reputation as well as year round income. And the effects on Egyptian tennis are paying off – more local juniors are world-ranked (the best ranked as high as 60 and 118 boys-girls respectively) and there are 8-4 male-female ranked pros.
Turkey had used the same model (originally centred in a single hotel complex in Antalya though now much expanded) and the effect has been even better with 16 male and 12 female pro ranked players. Marsel Ilhan is top-100 ATP and the wonderful Cagla Buyukakcay is top-150 and never more than a win away from breaking the top-100.
The company organising the Sharm tournaments in Egypt was in profit less than one year after the tournaments began, it has now expanded into junior tennis.
The Egyptian and Turkish examples are not rocket science. They are not peculiar to these countries and are simple templates for what can be done elsewhere with a little private initiative and with Government assistance in the early stages.
Yet in our wonderful isle of saints and scholars, sports and sports people are still second class citizens unless they go and do it themselves, or get a dig out from FIFA.