Marketers poking at dying embers of patriot games
Kentaro's presence in international fare gives the cheque book a higher allegiance, writes Dion Fanning
'They're looking for a conspiracy," the FAI press officer said when Kentaro's name was brought up in front of Giovanni Trapattoni in a London hotel last Wednesday morning. The conspiracy suggested that the inclusion of Robbie Keane in the Ireland line-up at the last minute had followed the intervention of the Swiss-based company that is playing a prominent role in international football.
The conspiracy theories involving Keane's selection had swiftly replaced the more widespread conspiracy that the invitation and fee Kentaro had extended to the FAI to play Brazil in the Emirates was part of the financial compensation FIFA was pointing in the FAI's direction after Paris.
Both conspiracies were denied by the FAI but nobody was trying to hide Kentaro's involvement in the games. In fact, Kentaro may be the only group who has found a purpose in international friendlies, even in a World Cup year.
In England they were briefly in despair when they trailed to Egypt but their first passing movement of the game led Clive Tyldesley to exclaim "that's world-class" and the party was back on. They had found a meaning once more, but others who are not prone to the massive mood swings of those following England find it harder to see a purpose.
Damien Duff may have been unable to find any positives, the footballer's consolation, from Ireland's defeat to Brazil last Tuesday but that was hardly surprising. Duff may have been talking about the result and second-half performance but there was very little need for Ireland to play a friendly in March, except for the fee.
The search for positives may be even trickier in May when Ireland play Algeria and Paraguay in the RDS. Ireland have their noses pressed to the glass right now but they are also part of the adaptation of international football, an adaptation that may make many aspects of the game even more meaningless.
While Trapattoni has been reluctant to select some of the English players who qualify for Ireland, he has had no problem expanding Ireland's pool by taking players from Northern Ireland. He sees these choices as simply as he saw Ireland's lobbying to have their game in Georgia moved to a neutral venue: it may give Ireland a competitive advantage.
Yet, it also points to a situation, even more starkly than when Ireland were accused of having mercenaries under Jack Charlton, where footballers are treating the international game as another marketplace. This is understandable. Everybody else is.
Trapattoni says it is "impossible" for Jamie O'Hara to win a place in the England World Cup squad. The player doesn't think so, reminding Fabio Capello on his Twitter page (O'Hara's page, not Capello's. Capello is not as hard as everyone thinks he is but at least he's not tweeting) about his recent performances.
For this reason, he will wait for his first-choice, England, at least until the summer, although he said yesterday that he was prepared to see which players retired after the World Cup before making any decision. Many would say that O'Hara has already made his decision but there is always an alternative now, just as there is with club football.
This is international football's problem. It is supposed to be about allegiance and patriotism or even nationalism but football has found a different calling. Even if you find the idea of patriotism and/or nationalism expressed through actions on a sporting field troublesome, it is hard to see how international football can survive without them.
There are different futures. England rebuilt Wembley for nearly a billion pounds and ripped out everything that gave the stadium a soul. They also forgot to provide a pitch for footballers to play on, intent as they were on providing enough bathrooms for the corporate sector whose interest may not be retained.
In the boom, football, like everybody else, was certain that they would always have a crowd. Now the crowd is becoming more selective. Attendances are suffering and international friendlies that cost competition prices do not appeal.
In the commercially driven world of football, international football has only the showpiece events every couple of years that can provide the perfect mixture of competition and interest. The rest is noise.
Kentaro, through shrewd marketing of friendlies, have tried to change that. They are a driving force in international football now, creating an interest that may not have been there before, finding a point to friendlies by staging them in unusual places (England's game against Brazil in Doha was under their umbrella) and trying to find a purpose to a form of the game that is generally agreed to be dying.
In the summer, international football will come alive. The World Cup may not be the purest form of football anymore but it is still the most magical. No other sporting event brings the world to a halt the way the World Cup does.
When the tournament begins, it will be hard to remember why people have a problem with international football. Even Arsene Wenger might be enthralled by the spectacle and the intensity while holding onto to his understandable belief that Champions League football is superior.
By the time Ireland's international calendar has a purpose again when they trudge across eastern Europe many will feel cheated as the domestic calendar is interrupted for games of limited quality.
Before then, Ireland will play in another Kentaro game. Ireland's first match in the redeveloped Lansdowne Road will be against Argentina, as part of a Kentaro-promoted world tour. Argentina and Brazil are the centrepieces to Kentaro's football promotion but they boast on their website that they are "proud to represent" more than 20 football associations, including the FAI and the English FA.
Ireland's game against Algeria has been arranged through Kentaro, but, despite being mentioned on the Kentaro website as one of their fixtures, the Paraguay fixture was organised directly between the two associations. Kentaro's involvement in that game may be as third-party TV rights-holder.
They will want to become more involved. "Sometimes they can help open doors but sometimes it's better to go directly," an FAI source said last week. Trapattoni had suggested a friendly against England and that is one any promoter would want a piece of, even if the relationships at executive level and between the two managers might make it possible without them.
The FAI confirmed last week that they have a long-term but not exclusive agreement with Kentaro, although they would not say how long it was.
They arranged the Irish friendlies in London for the past two summers, events that proved a success and the multi-cultural aspect of London has given friendlies staged in the city a different energy.
Expatriate communities that do not get to see their teams as often have provided an atmosphere at these matches. In many other friendly games, neither the players nor the crowd are prepared to suspend disbelief and play as if the game mattered.
For 45 minutes at the Emirates, both sides seemed to be swayed by the crowd's conviction that it did. International football seemed to have a future, or maybe just a market. These days the two are indistinguishable.