By Mark Jones
DUBLIN — A joint bid by Ireland and Scotland to host the 2008 European soccer championships looks set to open up Croke Park to other sports. Confused? Well, you’re not the only one.
As Irish sports and politics mixed yet again in a mind-boggling blur last week, it does appear certain that the GAA’s Rule 42, which prevents soccer and rugby matches from being staged at Croke Park and the rest of the association’s grounds, will be removed at next month’s annual congress.
Just a year after a proposal to change the rule failed to gain the necessary majority, the Irish government has leaned on the GAA’s top brass to push through the change.
In order for Ireland and Scotland to become one of the possible hosts of the European soccer championships six years from now, the government had to nominate two stadiums that would be suitable to stage a number of high-profile games. It seemed that the Stadium Ireland project, which is scheduled to be completed in 2005, would be one choice, with Lansdowne Road — a rugby ground that regularly hosts soccer matches — the other.
But the Fianna Fail-led administration and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern have been having a quarrel over the putative Stadium Ireland with their partners in government, the Progressive Democrats. Too expensive and ill-thought out, say the PDs about the so-called Bertie Bowl. Basically, the PDs have demanded the project be parked until after the general election which is earmarked for May.
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You might have expected Fianna Fail to flex its muscles and overrule the PDs, but with that election looming, the prospect of FF and the PDs forming the next government a real one, Ahern doesn’t want to marginalize his minority partner.
So, Ahern called the GAA director general, Liam Mulvihill, and president Sean McCague into Government Buildings in Dublin last week to push for a repeal of Rule 42 so that the joint Irish and Scottish bid could go ahead. The indications from Mulvihill and McCague were that a proposal to open up Croke Park would be carried at next month’s Congress.
Therefore, Ahern was able to nominate Croke Park and Lansdowne Road as the two Irish stadiums in the bid. Makes sense to go along with the Scots, as even if Ireland stands to host a maximum of eight games if the bid is ultimately successful, there would be substantial tourism revenue and profile from being involved in hosting such a major event.
However, there are problems. The Scots, who have nominated six stadiums, can hardly be soothed by the fact that their bid partners are putting forward Croke Park, which at the moment is not permitted to stage soccer games, and Lansdowne Road, which is owned by the rugby authorities. On top of that Irish solution to an Irish problem, if Croke Park is opened up to soccer and rugby, it appears that the Stadium Ireland project will be doomed. Why would Dublin want two state-of-the-art stadiums with up to 80,000 capacity competing for the same international sports events?
The likelihood of Stadium Ireland being consigned to the scrap heap didn’t please Irish soccer’s governing body, the FAI. A homeless association, the FAI has banked its financial future on taking up residence in the Bertie Bowl and now could be left to look for temporary lodgings at either Croke Park or Lansdowne Road.
But then, more important, the IRFU, which runs rugby, said it wouldn’t allow Lansdowne Road to be developed into a 32,000 all-seater stadium if the Stadium Ireland project was scrapped. Lansdowne Road, in its current state, would not be suitable for a major soccer finals, as regulations demand that every stadium in the bid be all-seater.
So right now, the Irish bid has two stadiums on its list for the 2008 European soccer championships, and it’s not clear if both will be able to stage soccer matches. If the ramifications such as the opening up of Croke Park and the possible consignment to the bin of Stadium Ireland are not yet certain, one thing is: This bid is doomed to failure.