Saturday 24 June 2017

Comment: Games against Gibraltar are damaging the game

Robbie Keane scores against Gibraltar earlier in the campaign
Robbie Keane scores against Gibraltar earlier in the campaign
Kevin Palmer

Kevin Palmer

As Robbie Keane wheeled away in familiar fashion after completing an 18-minute hat-trick against Gibraltar at the Aviva Stadium last October, the folly of a fixture against such blatantly unqualified opposition was highlighted.

An amateur team that featured the talents of policemen, firemen, a customs officer and an admin clerk may well have enjoyed their day out in Dublin, yet their presence in Euro 2016 qualifying Group D is not good for the game.

We all had a laugh at some of their defending and those inside the Aviva got to see Keane add to his magnificent Ireland goal haul, but a mismatch of such unedifying proportions has no place in a top level sporting calendar.

Aside from the quadrennial World Cup finals and the finale of the European Championships, international football is already struggling to hold its own in a soccer landscape dominated by the Premier League and Champions League, with games of the ilk we will witness this weekend do little for it’s credibility.

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Does anyone want to sit around their TV sets on a Saturday night and watch San Marino v England? Will the visit of Kazakhstan set pulses racing for the soccer lovers in the Czech Republic? Obviously not, but that will be on the agenda this weekend.

11 October 2014; Robbie Keane, Republic of Ireland, celebrates after scoring his side's second goal. UEFA EURO 2016 Championship Qualifer, Group D, Republic of Ireland v Gibraltar. Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE
11 October 2014; Robbie Keane, Republic of Ireland, celebrates after scoring his side's second goal. UEFA EURO 2016 Championship Qualifer, Group D, Republic of Ireland v Gibraltar. Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

While we should all be in favour of the expansion of the European Championships to a 24-team finale in France next year as it means Ireland have a better chance of making the qualifying cut, games of the nature we will sit through in Faro tomorrow night are diluting the international game at a time when it is in need of a boost.

It says much about the decline of the international game in the last decades that one of England’s all-time great scorers has admitted he is no longer enthused by the prospect of Euro qualifying weekends, with Michael Owen admitting the game at the highest level has lost some of its spark.

“If I’m being honest, I don’t particularly enjoy watching international football any more,” Michael Owen told me in an interview for ESPN last month.

Read more: Keane: We haven't earned the right to be complacent against Gibraltar

“It hurts me to say that, but it’s true. Give me a great Champions League game or an exiting Premier League game ahead of an international match. I’m sure I’m not alone in that view.

“A lot of people have lost interest and while the World Cup is great every four years, I think people struggle to get themselves excited about qualifiers against the lesser nations and especially the friendly matches.

“It will take some good performances from the England team to get the feel good factor back because it is hard to watch at the moment and that has been the case for some time now. I guess that is the same emotions you are feeling in Ireland now as you have not have a lot of success either of late.

“To get motivated to watch international football, you need your country to be having some form of success and the reality is we haven’t had any for a long time now and I don’t get a lot of enjoyment out of sitting there for an hour and a half watching a game like Ireland v Gibraltar. I’m not sure teams of that stature need to be in there.”

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There should be some basic criteria for admitting a team to the international area and Gibraltar fail on a variety of accounts:

* They don’t have their own stadium and play in recent accommodation in Faro, Portugal.

* Gibraltar are not ranked by FIFA as they do not consider them to be a viable team on the international stage.

* Aside from Bristol Rovers midfielder Jake Gosling, they lack any professional performers in their current squad.

The sight of world-class performers like Germany’s Thomas Muller and Poland’s Robert Lewandowski playing in what are being billed as competitive internationals against a nation boasting a population that is half the size of Tallaght is not helping the fading brand that is international football.

Qualifying tournaments featuring the lower ranked nations would give them some realistic competition to get their teeth into, while also trimming down the qualifying calendar to create space for more attractive international games.

Ireland will get the job done in Faro tomorrow night, of course they will, but sport is only compelling when competition is present and an upset is possible. The Gibraltar national football can never provide that quality.

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