It's not all glitz and glamour in world of the beautiful game
FIFPRO TOURNAMENT:If the glitz and glamour associated with the Champions League these days represents the ongoing boom at the very top end of European club football then yesterday’s Fifpro Winter Tournament in Oslo provides a little sense of the bust.
In a chilly indoor arena on the outskirts of the Norwegian capital 60 or so out-of-contract professionals, a quarter of them local, the rest representing Sweden, Finland or Ireland, played two games apiece and hoped, as they wandered towards the dressing-rooms after the second, that they had done enough to catch an eye and maybe kick-start careers, many of which are, temporarily at least, currently in the doldrums.
The games are televised locally but the live audience, in stark contrast to the biggest club games, is tiny and comprised almost exclusively of just one demographic really: middle-aged men. Perhaps a couple of hundred coaches, scouts and agents sit, largely impassive, taking the odd note or placing a tick beside a name.
Only the winners will be notified.
Fifpro, who fund the entire enterprise out of its members’ dues and substantial commercial revenues, is the international players’ union and its local affiliates, including the PFAI, organise the participating teams and finance any preparations prior to departure.
For the international organisation, the event – like a similar one being staged for six South American nations in Peru today – has some potential to generate a return of sorts in addition to the obvious service provided to members.
Participating players were testing shinguards made of what is said to be a revolutionary new material for an American manufacturer yesterday while Fifa were there with researchers from Loughborough University working on the development of a new ball for the 2018 World Cup.
For Fifa’s purposes the relatively lowly status of the players is actually an advantage. They are professionals whose opinions are respected but the absence of brand loyalties inspired by club or personal endorsement deals is considered a major plus.
The PFAI’s outlay, meanwhile, is about €10,000, considerable in the context of its rather modest annual discretionary spend but well worthwhile according to its general secretary, Stephen McGuinness, who was one of those behind the idea three years ago of replicating the already successful Fifpro tournament for those players whose leagues run through the summer months.
“The idea is that a player can be signed by any club,” he says, “and the Norwegian ones are obviously the best represented but I think a lot of our lads come to remind managers back home of their availability.”
Every Irish player to take part in each of the last two seasons has subsequently got a new contract but with club finances stabilising, many players being snapped up earlier and this year’s tournament taking place several weeks later than usual, things are still becoming a little anxious for many of this group.
Wages are low
Though improving a little again, wages are low – the average in the Premier Division is about €500 per week with almost everyone on single-season contracts running for between 33 and 42 weeks – and most players have to find ways to supplement their football income either on an ongoing or seasonal basis with many looking to get jobs in shops or with the likes of An Post over the Christmas period.
Many have to endure particularly slim pickings through the close season, though, and to miss out on a deal would be disastrous, potentially even the end of a player’s professional career.
“It’s like a merry-go-round,” said McGuinness. “As long as you’re on it, it’s not that hard to stay on; lads at clubs one year tend to get fixed up for the next but if you do ever fall off it can be very hard to get back on. Players, and managers (Pat Scully managed the Irish team here a month or so after having been let go by Limerick), can be forgotten about very quickly in our league.”
Some players need to jog memories a little more than others. For Mark Leech and goalkeeper Charlie Treacy, the event is an opportunity to publicise their return from Australia, homecomings that have been prompted by expired visas. Some, like Craig Hyland and Liam Burns, are looking to drum up either new interest or improved offers after refusing those they got or being let go at the end of last season.
Others, like former Shamrock Rovers striker Tadhg Purcell, still slightly raw from a frustrating round of trials in England last summer, have worked to prepare the ground, contacting managers in advance in the hope they will come along and like what they see.
“Yeah, I have some options back in Ireland,” said Purcell, “and potentially in England too but I got in touch with some managers from Finland about coming to see me so I’m hoping there might be some here too.”
Former Drogheda United player Sami Ristilla, now coaching back at home with Finnish second-tier side Koo TeePee, was last night in talks with Stephen Maher and Craig Walsh about signing. “The tournament is useful,” he said. “It’s very short and the players are playing two games in one day so it’s not ideal but it is well organised and provides a chance to get a sense of how an Irish player might do against Finnish ones.”
If Purcell, Walsh or any of the others were to go, despite some interest and a couple of firm offers in previous years, they would be the first Irish players to actually take up a deal in one of the Nordic countries as a result of the tournament. “I think it would be good,” said Purcell. “If someone does make the move it will demonstrate that the tournament is working the way it’s supposed to although there are other sides to it; I realise that different players have come here for different reasons.
“Some of the younger lads,” he continued, “just see it as an opportunity to play in a tournament really. I’m not sure they see what a big opportunity it is to impress. Some of them probably haven’t grasped what’s at stake but from my point of view, if you’re guaranteed your wage and treated well, why wouldn’t you come? You’re an hour and a half from home and England’s not all it’s cracked up to be.”
Among the other three participating nations, the potential benefits are well enough established. Five Swedes were signed by top-flight Norwegian sides immediately after the inaugural tournament while three locals got similar breaks 12 months ago according to this year’s host team manager, Eirik Bakke, the former Leeds United star.
“There are other players back at home,” said former Swedish international Magnus Erlingmark, who now heads up his country’s players’ union, “who should be here but they’re not. I don’t know whether they think it would be embarrassing but my opinion is that the sports directors who have come will look at the guys who have come and think: ‘these are the ones who really want a new job’.”
Ireland Finnish well Sweden win overall
The Irish finished third in yesterday’s PFAI thanks to a 2-0 defeat of Finland in the first of the afternoon’s play-off games.
Shane Tracy scored the opener for Pat Scully’s side from the penalty spot after five minutes following a foul on Peter Higgins and Barry O’Mahony headed home the second from a Dean Marshall free six minutes into the second half.
Earlier, the Irish had been narrowly beaten by the hosts in their opening game with Norway progressing to the final 6-5 on penalties after Higgins had become the first player to have his spot kick saved in the penalty shootout.
Scully’s men had actually looked the better side for most of the contest but had to battle back after conceding less than a minute in. Stephen Maher scored the goal that forced the shootout from the spot after being pushed inside the area just three minutes from time.
“I have to say it was all really positive,” said Scully afterwards. “We wanted performances and we got them with a few of the lads really standing out. Hopefully they will all get clubs now.
“It’s been a wonderful experience for everyone, myself included, I’ve learned a lot. I’ve enjoyed it immensely, not just today but working with the lads over the whole six weeks. If I’m disappointed about anything it’s that we didn’t win the thing because I honestly believe we were the best team. That was never really what it was all about, though.”
Sweden eventually won the final, beating Norway 3-2 on penalties after the sides had finished 2-2 after 90 minutes.