Players deserve their fair share of qualification spoils
I felt more like a supporter who had won a competition to be there rather than a member of the senior squad that deserved to be in the room. I'm talking about the night the bonuses were first discussed among the Ireland players ahead of the 2002 World Cup. As I learned that evening, the process is far from straightforward.
It began with that squad meeting before Ireland were due to play Russia in Dublin ten years ago. It was the first time the players had met after achieving qualification in Iran and it was my first involvement at that level. I had only been introduced to some of the players two days earlier, played no role in qualification and honestly thought I had no chance of going to the finals myself. At no point did I believe any of the money would find its way into my pocket, but we were all called to the room so I attended as instructed.
Obviously, I contributed nothing while we were there, but I remember thinking I had never before associated money with international football. I knew we would each receive around £800 for playing the following night, but the figures being discussed here were far greater.
It was unclear at that point what amount was on offer for qualifying, but more would be available from the FAI depending on results in the finals themselves. Before any of that was sorted, agreement had to be reached on how to divide it. Would players who started the games get much more than those who came on as sub? Would those who remained on the bench get anything? And what about those who travelled to games but remained in the stands? It is generally accepted that time on the pitch should be rewarded, but the difficulty arises when you try to put a price on it.
There is no formal hierarchy in place in any squad either (with the obvious exception of the team captain), so there's uncertainty too over who makes the final call. Roy Keane was Ireland's captain in 2002 but he stayed virtually silent throughout the meeting. Niall Quinn did most of the talking but there was more to discuss than just the bonuses. One player had been a vocal contributor previously, but a heavy weekend limited his role in the meeting to that of a spectator. His only contribution was to suggest donating some to charity, but he was immediately dismissed as still being drunk.
A negotiator had to be agreed upon, but so too did the rather complicated issue of product endorsements and how those earnings would be split with the FAI. It was already known which companies were interested. Everything from sticker collections to phone cards was mentioned. And apart from deciding on which to become involved with, it was acknowledged certain players would be in greater demand for photo shoots, advertisements and public appearances. Damien Duff, Robbie Keane and Roy Keane were regarded as the most appealing commercially at the time so it was assumed demand would be greatest for them. Again, would this be reflected in how the money would be divided overall?
Michael Kennedy, Roy Keane's advisor, conducted the negotiations for the squad in the end. I have no idea how the issues that were raised that night were resolved. Every squad faces those same questions before a tournament, and I'm sure those discussions will take place again this week prior to Wednesday's game against the Czech Republic.
Liam Lawrence brought attention to the issue with his comments last weekend but I wouldn't expect many others to say too much from now on. Talks of this nature are best kept private, so Lawrence's comments haven't helped anyone. What we do know is that the original offer from the FAI did not match the expectations of the players, but the reaction from supporters surprised
me greatly. There appears to be little support for the squad's cause.
Begrudging the wealth of others is hardly a new phenomenon for Irish people, but the right of millionaires to receive financial reward for playing football for Ireland is not an issue which would ever mobilise the nation. However, the players have earned every cent of the qualification money and are fully entitled to expect a healthy slice of it. It is not fair to deny them what they are due just because it is something we would all like to do for nothing.
Negotiations like this can be very drawn out, but it is of no benefit to the players for them to be conducted in public. Shay Given was keen to play down the issue last week, but the perception of greed will be hard to avoid if negotiations are not concluded soon. I'm sure both parties are well aware of this.
They won't get near the levels negotiated by the squad of 2002, when 50 per cent of the FAI's net profit from the tournament was divided among them. These are very different times and everyone accepts that. Split between 23 players, the amounts involved won't make a great deal of difference to most of the current squad, but that's irrelevant. Their existing wealth shouldn't come into it. It's about rewarding their achievements for their country, not penalising them for being successful with their clubs.
Sunday Indo Sport