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  1. A tale of three countries Country Fifa Rank Population Professional clubs Attendance average clubs Players in top leagues Croatia 10 3.85 M 39 Over 4000 Many Ireland 58 5.1 M 20 Over 3000 Many Bulgaria 84 6.5 M 30 Less than 2000 None Ah, statistics. They prove everything and nothing. What I like about them are indications. They are often a good sign of where things are going, good or bad. And so I will try to use them as such in what is a complex thesis about 3 countries, one good, one bad and one terrible. The league table above gives you the three ranked. Am I being fair? Yes, I think so. Is this really football in Bulgaria? I feel the only solution to improve things for Ireland and Bulgaria is to benchmark against the best country out there that is similar in many ways. Croatia are undoubtedly the leaders in Europe for small countries. We need to look at everything they do right and see how we can do better than that. This is the way the Japanese manufacturers became among the leading companies in the world. Benchmarking is the only way forward if we are serious about getting to the latter stages of big tournaments. Mismanagement is the first area to tackle Croatia have the smallest population and they are top. Ireland next on population and second. Bulgaria with the biggest are last, way behind the other two. Croatia have the most professional teams with 39, Bulgaria second with 30 and Ireland last with 20. That is an indication that Bulgaria should be better but attendances are bigger in Ireland and growing every year. Croatia’s attendances are the highest. I feel that is one critical factor. If attendances are good then it means people care about the teams. That is the biggest problem in Bulgaria, not enough people care about either the national team or football clubs. A long history of mismanagement at club level has followed on from an even worse history of mismanagement at national level. The green and white of Bulgaria needs to be seen at big tournaments Ireland has also had a bad history of mismanagement at national level with the lowlight being in Saipan island in 2004 for the Japan/Korea World Cup when Roy Keane walked out on the team because there were no footballs to train with on the island because the FAI didn’t organize them. Keane was a consistent critic of the FAI because of bad organization at international level. Annoying things like the FAI executives going first class and the players in economy, and bigger things like the huge salaries paid to administrators. Would Bulgaria beat the Vatican? But this column is about football and what happens on the pitch. Let’s take the worst first. Bulgaria, who were in a World Cup semi-final in lots of people’s living memory. Who have had many players playing at top clubs and now have none with Despedov at PAOK probably the highlight. Bulgaria finished bottom of their group in the European qualifiers with no wins and Lithuania above them. Embarrassing! They are ranked 84th in the world with many minnows around them. They are now little fish in an ocean. Their home attendances are easily the lowest of the 3 teams. They seem to do especially badly against the little teams and give good teams hard matches which makes no sense to me. With the holy power behind them, the Vatican might beat Ireland and Bulgaria It seems obvious that they need a complete change of regime at both club and international level. They need to work together, clubs and country, on finding and developing players. They need to work with communities to build up support. They must give football back to the people, get crowds up, get facilities and stadiums better, and have players playing in top leagues. Looking at what Croatia do could be a start. What are they doing better and could it be replicated in Bulgaria? Hey, Ireland beat Gibraltar! Ireland are 58 in the world, the lowest I can remember and under Stephen Kenny can scarcely beat anyone. We only beat Gibraltar home and away for the 6 points we got in the European championship. Again we seem to play better against top teams. With Ireland I feel that we need a manager who plays traditional holding methods, a tight defence, everyone knows their job and we rely on breakaways to score like we had with Martin O’Neill, Mick McCarthy, Giovanni Trapattoni and Jack Charlton. We cannot play the ball out from the back like the top teams as we don’t have the players. And the green and white of Ireland also needs to be seen at big tournaments I feel that Stephen Kenny, coming off being successful with Dundalk at local and European level, where he could play high possession football, was ill suited to the national team where you have to concede possession, and hope for a goal from a breakaway or setpiece. You need to be able to change your tactics according to what you have and what the opposition have. He didn’t. There are green shoots in Ireland Ireland still get strong crowds for home matches, the League of Ireland is getting better, and the last piece of the jigsaw is to get the FAI to do their job with training and academy facilities and supporting the clubs and the international teams with top class organization. With the right facilities, Ireland could start qualifying again for major tournaments. We do have 8 players at Premiership clubs and most of the rest at top Championship clubs. That is better than a lot of the middle teams in Europe. Once again looking at Croatia is what I would do. Send our people to Croatia And so finally Croatia, the smallest country with by far the better performance. Runners up once and 3rd place twice in recent world cups. 2nd place in the 2022 European Nations League. Lots of players playing in top leagues including Manchester City and Real Madrid. Their clubs are above both Bulgaria and Ireland in European competition over the past 5 years. Which, considering lots of players play abroad, is significant. This is taken from Croatia Week: “Croatia are the no.1 success story of European football without a doubt. Genetics, quality coaching and development structure, passion, culture, and an enormous love for country are some of the main reasons according to Romeo Jozak, one of the people most qualified to provide some insight. We need people of the calibre of Romeo Jozak Jozak is the former Technical Director of the Croatian Football Federation. He has a Doctorate in Science and has worked in almost every role in Croatian football, including working with Dinamo Zagreb’s famous Youth Academy.” https://www.croatiaweek.com/how-does-the-small-nation-of-croatia-constantly-succeed-on-the-world-sporting-stage/#:~:text=Genetics%2C%20quality%20coaching%20and%20development,of%20the%20Croatian%20Football%20Federation. Ireland and Bulgaria need change at the top Both Bulgaria and Ireland need such people at the helm. Searching for players, including the diaspora, encouraging young talents, giving them top-class facilities. If you don’t prepare right, you have no hope. How do Croatia do it? To be honest, without a change of regime in Bulgaria, I find it hard to see how progress can be made. The fiasco this week, where they couldn’t organize a safe place for the team to play football, is indicative of the crisis. Without a consistent supportive system in place, moving upwards is going to be like walking uphill in a mudbath. Can we qualify? For Ireland, there are green shoots. Interest in local football has rocketed. Brexit may mean more opportunities for Irish footballers in the UK. I reckon if we could sort out the FAI and appoint a manager that understands being the underdog in international football, we could jump up quite quickly. I would send a group over to Croatia immediately. Maybe we should marry a few Croats to speed up the process. Their kids could play for us. I would love to see both Ireland and Bulgaria qualify for major tournaments. But even with the ramping up of the number of teams, it is still not certain with what we have now. We finished above Gibraltar and Bulgaria finished below Lithuania. Maybe they should make an exclusive minnows World Cup and European Championship. It might be the only way Ireland and Bulgaria get to play in a final.
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