The Carling Nations Cup: Where Did It All Go Wrong?

Over the next little while, I’m going to be posting up a few of the articles that I have previously written for the website Lovely Left Foot, which is currently undergoing a hiatus of sorts. They may eventually be hosted on LLF again someday, but for now I felt that they were good enough examples of my writing that they should be up somewhere.

The original publication date for this piece was January 11th 2012.

The Carling Nations Cup, which was inaugurated last year, was a noble experiment, but now appears to be heading towards a death as ignominious as its predecessor, the British Home Tournament.

The basic idea is sound, certainly. One only has to look at Rugby Union’s Six Nations tournament to see how successful this kind of idea can be: the nations of the “Atlantic Archipelago” have plenty of rivalry, plenty of excellent footballers, plenty of connections and plenty of passion for the sport. There is an existing precedent, as noted.

So, how did it all go horribly wrong?

Well, first and foremost, England just wasn’t interested, which put an immediate dampener on any potential tournament, the strongest nation in the area not taking part. This imbued the proposed tournament with a sense of being second-rate from the off, with England having better things to do then take part (which was what, friendlies?). It would take a lot to convince an FA of the calibre of England to agree to a resurrection of the Home Nations, and such efforts were a failure.

Secondly, the scheduling of the entire tournament was a disaster. By playing all of the games in line with other international friendlies going on around Europe, the tournament was always going to be seen as nothing more than a bunch of non-competitive matches that so happened to coincide with a group table. Eliminate the group table, and very little would have been lost.

Further to that, splitting the games of the Nations Cup into two sections months apart was also a poor decision, one that further showed up the tournament as “minor league”, killing any attention that it may have picked up from interested parties. Any kind of excitement that the opening fixtures may have generated for the idea was quashed when you realise you would wait a full three months before seeing the next matches.

One could argue that the tournament should have been arranged to take place during an odd-numbered summer, over the course of week perhaps, so that at least you could eliminate the scheduling problem and focus public attention on the whole thing with a more concentrated series of games. Spread those games around the host country, have all of the top players available, no clashing with domestic leagues and get some excitement going. You may even get England onside if that were the case. The issue is getting players and the clubs they play for to agree with taking that summer week for international duty, but it is done every even year anyway.

Thirdly, the Football Association of Ireland shot themselves and the entire idea of the tournament in the foot with utterly exorbitant ticket prices and bad advertising. It is no secret that the FAI has been having some financial difficulties as of late, and in the last few years has been frequently targeted for criticism over its ticket pricing. Ireland home games in the past while have regularly undersold. Fans, especially in Ireland’s current financial climate, cannot afford to shell out the prices that the FAI are asking for, and that goes double for what is seen as a group of friendly games.

But this went beyond Ireland and into games between the likes of Wales and Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, whose attendance levels in the inaugural Nations Cup were truly dire. Scottish fans weren’t going to travel to Dublin, pay for accommodation, food and everything else, while also paying an outrageous sum of money just to see the actual match. The result were games watched by little over 500 people, in a stadium that can hold over 50’000 at full capacity. Even Irish games failed to break the 20k mark. Such a spectacle simply re-enforced the view that the tournament was a joke. In terms of advertising, the tournament went largely unnoticed outside the participating countries, and was treated with disdain by many within.

And as an aside, it also shone a light on the ugly spat between the FAI and IFA over the issue of player allegiance, with many Northern Ireland fans refusing to make the trip south because of it.

Lastly, something that was clear from the moment the first ball was kicked to the very last final whistle: boring, pedestrian football. Ireland cruised through this tournament, putting three past Wales before thrashing the North 5-0. Scotland put three past each of the same opposition. The exciting conclusion to the entire affair was a dour 1-0 Irish victory over the Scots in May, as Wales beat Northern Ireland 2-0 in front of the smallest crowd a Dublin football match had seen in years.

It’s probably the only time that I’ll see the Irish national team lift a trophy, but it meant nothing to me. Just another friendly. And the same can be said of the players, who played the Nations Cup in the manner that the fans saw it, that the Associations had made it: as a friendly tournament. Many players didn’t even turn up for international duty. This was no Six Nations.

The financial matters that now see the participant nations seeking remuneration off others is a sad indictment of how things turned out. The FAI must take most of the blame, being the main proponent of the tournament, its host and its financial administrator.

The Nations Cup will almost certainly not take place again. If it does, many changes have to be made.

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