Apoel FC’s Champions League adventure: What lessons for Ireland?
Here’s an interesting statistic, 4.21 times, that’s how much larger Ireland population is than that of Cyprus.
Here’s another one, 3.82, that’s how many times larger Apoel’s season tickets sales are than those of our own European flag bearer, Shamrock Rovers. Yet while Rovers are lauded in the media here for their mere presence in the group stages of Europe’s distinctly second tier competition, the Europe League, Apoel FC are slugging it out with the big boys in the elite stages of the Champions league.
The club are not just slugging it out, in fact they have just qualified for the last sixteen with a game to spare, and subsequently topped their group, a group that despite not including any of the traditional leading lights, still boasted some European regulars with former winners Porto, Shakhtar Donetsk and Zenith all accustomed to playing in Europe’s top tier.
So how has this been possible, how have this team from a relative footballing outcrop established themselves on Europe’s biggest stage? How can clubs from Cyprus draw attendances in the tens of thousands, with average attendances twice that of the League of Ireland?
We constantly hear about the behemoth that is the GAA, gobbling up all available young talent in the Republic, but the Cypriots have their choice of sporting distraction too, although soccer is the first preference for most.
It might seem even more remarkable that Apoel are paying Constandinos Charalambides approximately one million euro a year. That’s figure to make many a League of Ireland professional stand up and take notice. One million euro, 20 grand a week, an amount that some Premier league players would even consider kitting out for.
While the financial stability and European progress of Shamrock Rovers is certainly encouraging, it is remarkable how far behind the sport in this soccer-mad country is when compared to the Cypriot model.
Apoel, despite their remarkable achievement to date, are merely following a path previously trodden by compatriots Anorthosis Famagusta.
Back in the humdrum of the domestic league here, however, clubs are living week to week and many have gotten into severe financial difficulties. The desire to speculate to accumulate is not unique to Ireland, but it has seen clubs such as Bohemians, Shels, Derry, Drogheda and Cork all get into major financial trouble. Despite the various rules regarding sustainability, clubs have and will manipulate their finances.
So what is the answer? How can Rovers and the rest get to where Apoel currently are? As always, the children are our future. For many of them, particularly in Dublin, soccer is the sport of choice. We’ve all heard about the Irish players who just don’t make it in England and never play at an organised level again.
Is it reasonable to suggest that teams here should have a “safety net” mechanism in place? We’re never going to be in a position to pay the wages on offer across the Irish Sea, but if the best and brightest that leave our shores do so with a long established affinity to their local club, and with a first refusal agreement with a top Irish club should they return, they might be more likely to stay in the game.
We hear about clubs doing more to bring these disillusioned young men back from the brink, and the new U19 league is a great start, but by agreeing in principle a fallback contract, we might see a higher ratio of retention, and less pressure heaped on the shoulders of those struggling to break into the English structure. With more of these undoubtedly talented players back in the game, success will breed success, crowds follow success, and the money will inevitably follow to sustain it.
It might seem like preparing for failure, but the reality is that the vast majority of kids don’t make it in England.
The level is so competitive that the difference between them and the ones that do is often minuscule. If Irish clubs can get these young kids back, restore their confidence, and allow them to enjoy the game once more, we could see a day where Irish teams with Irish players are making inroads into the number one European competition, the League of Champions.