Success coming at price for clubs
If a travel agent landed you with an itinerary which took in Iceland, Kazakhstan and the Ukraine in quick succession, you'd probably sue him. But that's the magical mystery tour St Patrick's Athletic took thanks to the vagaries of the Europa League qualifying draw.
Pat's had to make a 6,000-mile round trip to play Shakhtyor Karagandy in Kazakhstan, a journey involving three flights and a 150-mile coach journey to the ground as they couldn't stay in Karagandy because of worries about food poisoning. "It's worth it for the prestige and the chance of a big game if we qualify," said a Pat's official.
The club's reward for qualifying was a match against Ukrainian side Karpaty Lviv. Perhaps not surprisingly Pat's almost self-destructed last week when players, unhappy at a lack of compensation for time taken off work and cancelled holidays, threatened to boycott the game. Wiser counsels eventually prevailed but European competition had ended up as something of a nightmare.
Sligo Rovers' dreams of a glamour tie were dashed when they came out of the hat next to Vorskla Poltava of the Ukraine. After a 20-hour trip, including six hours on a coach, the team performed a minor miracle last week by holding the home side to a 0-0 draw, having two goals dubiously disallowed in the process. Yet Vorskla won the return leg 2-0 in The Showgrounds on Thursday night. They have ten times the wage bill of Sligo, play in a 25,000 capacity stadium, are owned by a billionaire and are second in the Ukrainian League, the seventh strongest in Europe. In the circumstances, a 2-0 defeat over two legs was a very honourable effort. But the costs of travel and of adjusting their home ground to UEFA standards means Rovers ended up spending a lot of money they could have done without losing in the current climate.
Shamrock Rovers were knocked out of the Champions League 3-0 by FC Copenhagen and will probably lose their Europa League final qualifying round match to Partizan Belgrade.
The League of Ireland doesn't do badly in Europe, we're 29th out of 53. But European competition is a mixed blessing for clubs. Once in a blue moon you might land a plum tie, but more often it involves a trip to a club you're more likely to have seen in an atlas than on television. It means that domestic success can end up costing rather than making you money.
It's time that UEFA regionalised these qualifying rounds so that the only time an Irish footballer has to see Kazakhstan is if he gets Borat out on DVD.
Sunday Indo Sport