Wednesday 20 September 2017

Are Aviva friendlies a window to our future?

Talking Point

Henrikh Mkhitaryan scores Manchester United’s first goal during his side’s 2-1 victory over Sampdoria at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Sportsfile
Henrikh Mkhitaryan scores Manchester United’s first goal during his side’s 2-1 victory over Sampdoria at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

The streets around the Aviva Stadium heaved with giddy punters last night.

Young or old, they had a red shirt in common. Some with their own names on the back; others with the names of their heroes. Pogba, Lukaku, Rashford and there was probably a Matic or two somewhere. Manchester United had brought their star men to town.

On numbers alone, this was the live soccer event of the Irish summer although Liverpool fans will try and plunder that title when Jurgen Klopp's side meet Athletic Bilbao on Saturday.

To the paying punter, it's a chance to see their idols at close proximity. The camera phone opportunities are endless. You can be sure that it was a number of children's first ever football match. For some older Irish voices, this was a rare trip too.

On the way down Lansdowne Road before the game, a man with a western accent was explaining to his friends how one end of the Aviva is smaller than the other three. This was evidently a novelty exercise.

And the bottom line is that their presence justifies it, even if the football significance is minimal. At least international friendlies tend to allow a couple of the protagonists an opportunity to represent their country for the first time, a proud achievement that will live with them.

No such emotional significance can be attached to international club friendlies involving a pair of touring sides. This is just another gig and you will see worse games of this nature. The quality of the players is high, but the intensity of a meaningful encounter cannot be manufactured.

Promoters

Still, it pays the bills for the promoters and the landlords. In this case, American company Relevent Sports and the FAI.

The Abbotstown chiefs have the venue and the US operation draw the acts. Relevent's mission statement is to 'showcase the best match-ups featuring the top clubs, international teams and players.' The globetrotting International Champions Cup is their baby.

For the FAI, it's clearly profitable as the friendlies were cited as very important at last month's AGM.

Given the substantial debt created by the chronic inability to sell the ten-year tickets that were supposed to finance the stadium, it's helpful that the quality of the venue is easing the burden.

We can expect to see more of them in the future, as the modern pre-season for the major English powers is all about the air miles. There were plenty of Manchester accents in Dublin last night too.

Their club's demands and commercial commitments - especially in America - make it harder for the locals. Before the Irish leg, their summer schedule was five US dates and one in Norway. Next on the list is a trip to Macedonia for the Super Cup.

For regular attendees on a budget, the increasingly forgotten fan, a short hop to Dublin is about as affordable as it gets. With tickets €45 to €80, it's hardly cheap. They did get a free can of Pepsi though.

It is primarily about the day trippers, though, a contingent that was once described as 'morons' by long-serving League of Ireland man Dermot Keely. That was harsh because, ultimately, they can decide to do what they want with their money and it's up to the local game to sell itself to them.

Nevertheless, the FAI's role as the party host does sit uncomfortably while juxtaposed with competitive European games going on around the continent while this match was taking place. All of the Irish sides were knocked out a fortnight ago and it would be nice to see more evidence of a vision to ensure that is rectified in the future.

Remember, if Dundalk had got past Rosenborg, they would have been battling with Celtic in Ballsbridge 24 hours earlier because of this fixture.

There was, of course, a time where the FAI were less accommodating about date clashes set-up by major forces coming to these shores.

Back in 2010, the FAI hierarchy blocked Limerick from pursuing advanced negotiations that would bring Barcelona to Thomond Park.

One part of their defence was that the proposed game would have clashed with Airtricity League fixtures. Strangely enough, Sligo's joust with St Patrick's Athletic and Cobh Ramblers' date with Longford did not end up being an obstacle to Liverpool's visit.

The FAI will be criticised on these pages and elsewhere if they remain well short of their debt targets so they cannot pass up these opportunities. But the longer term benefits of a strategy built around marquee PR opportunities are questionable.

The Aviva did allow the FAI to stage Porto v Braga in the 2011 Europa League final and Euro 2020 will be tremendous if Ireland are involved, but what will the legacy be?

The Dalymount Park project has been lumped in with that, and the FAI have lobbied strongly, but public funds will be paying for it.

By contrast, a successful 2023 Rugby World Cup bid will result in improvements for rugby and GAA grounds around the country.

Even putting a portion of the money generated by these games into boosting League of Ireland prizemoney, particularly for those clubs who don't qualify for Europe and miss out on UEFA's bloated rewards, would be a start.

That's an unrealistic target while the debt cloud hangs. There is a certain pragmatism in emptying the pocket of event junkies who wouldn't make the trek to watch any Irish team, whether that's club or country.

But one would like to think future summers will be about more than this.

Irish Independent

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