Watching the Irish national football team has always been a pleasurable experience. At their best they have always had a healthy combination of single-minded determination and thoughtful, skilful players inter-spliced with a strong work ethic that permeated throughout the squad.
Many of these components remain. The determination and strong work ethic is still there but somehow along the line astute intelligent football has vanished. There are several reasons for this. Principle amongst them has been the innate conservatism of their commander-and-chief, Giovanni Trapattoni.
The Coaching Conundrum
Giovanni Trapattoni is one of the most highly decorated and respected coaches in the world of football. He has won numerous titles with Italian clubs and has a litany of honours that are the envy of nearly every manager. Ten domestic league victories, every single UEFA cup competition as well as a World Club Cup are counted amongst his many achievements as a coach.
Yet, despite all of these myriad accolades he is certainly not without criticism especially when it comes to managing the Irish football team.
Trapattoni is viewed by both pundits and punters as a highly conservative coach, a manager whose first thought is how to avoid losing matches rather than achieve victory.
This is not the only criticism that Trapattoni has invited during his tenure as the national manager of the Irish football team. At times his use of personnel and selection policy has been bizarre. Talented skilful players have been jettisoned in a sometimes sanctimonious manner in favour of what can only be described as more technically-limited players.
Five players that are arguably of higher calibre than those that played in the first two matches of Ireland’s Euro 2012 group matches are Steven Reid, Andy Reid, James McCarthy, Seamus Coleman and James McClean. Although McClean did manage to play the last ten minutes of the Spain match in Euro 2012 but by then it was far too late.
An Ever Evolving Game
The current Irish football team shares a remarkable similarity with Jack Charlton’s Irish national team. During the late 1980’s and early 1990’s Jack’s defence-orientated tactics of ‘Put ‘em under pressure’ reaped significant benefits for the teams that he coached. Many top-quality teams became victim of a purpose-laden side that proved very difficult to play against.
It must also be noted that Jack Charlton also happened to be in possession of very talented, skilful players that would have caused teams problems irrespective of the tactics used.
Such defensive strategies were not without their flaws. Against inferior sides Ireland struggled to score goals when they should have been comfortable winners. This was not the case and the team suffered as a result with undoubtedly the worst match being against world minnows, Lichtenstein, in which Ireland failed to score a single goal.
Football, like all sports, is a dynamic, ever-changing game. Tactics that work today will not necessarily be successful tomorrow. As the sport evolves teams that fail to adapt get left behind.
The Irish team, much in the same manner as Jack Charlton’s side got left behind, are on the brink of being tactically outdated under Giovanni Trapattoni. In the 21st century possession of the football is the most important factor in determining if you will win competitions or not.
The Spanish Paradigm
World football is being dominated by Spain. They are currently head-and-shoulders above of any team on the planet. What is very different about this team is their comfort and ability on the ball. Each player, irrespective of position, can not only pass the ball superbly well but find space and open up the opposition through a relentless passing-based probing which inevitably finds weaknesses and leads to the exploitation of opportunities.
When a Spanish player is on the ball there are usually at least two passing options available to the player as his teammates drag their opponents across the pitch through well-executed and intelligent movement. Players know what to do when they receive the football. This is achieved through a mixture of well-taught structure and a collective emphasis on empowering players to adjust to what is in front of them.
This game is far removed from the dour almost chess-like strategies employed by many Premiership teams in England. It is true that in 2012 at least an English team has won the Champions’ League. However, when examined closer you can easily realise that this was an unfortunate blip.
Barcelona completely dominated Chelsea and only unbelievable fortune saved the English side who were second-best by a considerable distance. If Barcelona had addressed their weaknesses – a poor goalkeeper and substandard central defenders the result would have been an entirely different story.
Unfortunately, for other teams Spain have no such weaknesses and an excellent goalkeeper. In short, the national Spanish side is a much stronger team than Barcelona even with the loss of Lionel Messi.
A Parasitic Dependence
For decades Ireland had had an unhealthy dependence upon other countries. With no proper competitive domestic sides the national team has been the beneficiary of the generosity of other nations especially England. This parasitic dependence in which we feed upon other leagues has become not just a niggling concern it also is the main reason why it is unlikely that Ireland will ever win any competition if the status quo remains unchanged.
What’s worse, we may be right now on the precipice of entering an era in which even the mere act of qualifying will become a significant achievement. If this is the case the doldrums of mediocrity may become a permanent abode for Irish football.
The reason why domestic competition becomes increasingly vital to the future of the national side is control. In a time when the gap between English and Spanish football is forever widening Ireland is suffering greatly. Instead of being able to dictate how our own footballers play we are at the whims and mercy of foreign sides that prefer differing strategies.
Regional Domestic Teams A Key For Success
The creation of domestic regional sides is the best recipe for success. Eight domestic teams in key geographic locations with access to top class training facilities, top nutrition and cutting-edge sports and medical science technology on a par with what is standard fare for the Irish rugby teams are what is needed. All of these domestic teams would be able to operate without the threat of relegation. Positive and more importantly winning football would be easier to develop.
The creation of such teams would give tremendous opportunity for both European success at a club and national level.
The most successful professional sporting organisation in Ireland is the rugby team with a national body in charge of four provincial teams. As the provincial sides are owned by the organisation responsible for the national team – all of the teams exist to ultimately further the cause of the national one.
If the football was to copy such a model, and they really should, it would allow the same organisation in charge of the national team to have unprecedented control of the domestic game. This is a win-win situation for all sides concerned. Not only would the national body safeguard against domestic clubs becoming in debt by controlling the purse strings, there would be tremendous upsides.
The Most Tantalising Of Carrots
The domestic clubs would benefit from having access to the best facilities, national dieticians, national sport science facilities and advisors and the top-level coaches. A common world-class academy structure could also be implemented that could easily become the envy of the world.
Nevertheless, the greatest advantages would be reaped upon the national side who could benefit much in the same way that the best rugby team in the world, New Zealand does. By having control of the domestic scene, all of the clubs could be guided to play in a similar style. Therefore, it would become possible for both the national team and the domestic teams to play a similar style of football. The ability to play football in the same way as teams like Spain and Barcelona could be possible.
The only drawback to such a scheme is the initial outlay in terms of time and money. It would cost tens of millions to develop state of the art facilities and certainly it would take a decade or more before we could reasonably expect to see either the domestic teams or the national side begin to cause waves in Europe.
The Supporting Problem
Such a strategy is certainly long-term but it is the only way in which Irish teams become the architect or their own destiny rather than parasites scrounging off foreign leagues.
People looking in from afar must surely wonder at why Ireland is one of the few countries in the world whose public actively and strangely support teams from other countries at the expense of our own domestic side. Each year over €100 million is lost by supporters choosing to give their money to teams from England and Scotland rather than benefiting our own sides and our own economy. Such wastage is hard to fathom.
Success does breed continued success and it is up to the FAI to get the game in motion. Whether or not we will finally get our act together and create something memorable and potentially wonderful is hard to know. One thing is almost guaranteed though it is very unlikely that any Irish football team will win any competition if the current situation is allowed to continue.
The question we should ask is do we deserve success? Has any other team ever won anything with their domestic league in such a poor state of affairs? Why should we expect miracles?
A Window Of Opportunity In An Emerging Vacuum
The creation of world-class domestic teams and a world-class national side is certainly something that will not occur easily. The differences between our clubs and those of Madrid and Barcelona are too intimidating to contemplate. Spanish and English players earn more in a week than our domestic players can hope to earn in a year. But nothing stays the same and the ripples of change are starting to make waves that will become larger and larger.
The Global financial crisis is making its presence felt and many big clubs are living on borrowed time. In Spain the big two of Barcelona and Madrid are heavily in debt. As the situation stands both clubs are being propped up by Spanish banks that in turn are being propped by foreign loans. As the national debt of Spain grows the banks will be unable to keep the clubs afloat.
Currently, the massive debts or Madrid and Barcelona are being balanced by their assets such as grounds and the large player portfolio. Nonetheless, this fine balancing act will only work for a short time. As the debt becomes more burdensome to clubs the value of their assets will become reduced as both the property and player transfer market tank.
When the football market collapses, and it will collapse as banks in Italy, Spain, France, Portugal, England and finally Germany start to fold under huge, unsustainable debt, there will be a massive re-evaluation of player’s wages and transfer fees. Right now we are living in an era that is pretty close to the zenith when it comes to player earnings. When the bubble bursts there will be a dramatic reduction.
When this happens there will be a small window of opportunity for Irish teams to be able to compete more favourably with sides from the current big leagues of Europe. If Ireland and the FAI get their domestic game in check and start to finally realise their potential we could be living in a golden age.
Sometimes all it takes is to ignore fear and open the door to opportunity. Like many things in life it isn’t easy but neither is it theoretical physics. Time will tell.