Netherlands-Belgium merger could show Ireland the way forward

David Wilson reporting for the Sean McCaffrey foundation.

As the island of Ireland moves closer to adopting an all-Island league two footballing powerhouses, the Netherlands and Belgium are also exploring the possibility of a bi-nation league.

Geographical proximity is a contributing factor but the financial benefits resulting in a more profitable television rights deal could possibly tip the balance in its favour. As many of us recognise the more established clubs of the region such as RSC Anderlecht, KRC Genk, Ajax, Feyenoord and PSV Eindhoven, the smaller clubs will more likely benefit from the merger.

Similar to the Irish plan put forward by the Lucid group, the plan is to merge the two leagues into an 18-team topflight with two further divisions to provide an opportunity to earn promotion to the big leagues.

The lure of regular fixtures such as Anderlecht/Ajax or PSV/Genk could reignite a new interest in the competition and compete against the major top five European leagues. The all-Island league would arguably never compete with La Liga or the Premier League, but fixtures such as Linfield/Derry City or Cliftonville/Shamrock Rovers could draw in a wider audience, not just a football one.

This island can learn from the discussions ongoing in Benelux region, maybe not only in a sporting sense. Money talks, and just like here in Ireland, the finances will determine whether this initiative can develop or not.

Football is more than a game nowadays and marketability is crucial. The Belgian/Dutch merger similarly to Ireland look to tap into a new market and provide advertising and streaming revenues which could be worth millions of euro.

The resulting deliberation after last week’s conference in Dundalk which brought 36 clubs together plus representatives from football associations both sides of the border was largely positive however some were still sceptical.

Linfield FC, Dundalk FC, Warrenpoint Town FC and many others were encouraged by the talks but Belfast team Cliftonville voiced their concerns. Their chairman Gerard Lawlor called it a ‘pipe dream’ and ‘unrealistic at this moment in time’ whilst speaking to the website Belfastlive.

Just like in the Dutch-Belgian deliberations, the debate regarding European qualification spots are still proving to be a bone of contention. Clubs in this island rely on the revenue gained in UEFA competitions, this is not as crucial in the more established European qualified clubs in both the Netherlands and Belgium.

Another stumbling block for both mergers is the possibility for job losses for the ‘blazers’ who currently organise and administrate the leagues. It is feared that NIFL (Northern Ireland Football League) and FAI officials could scupper a move to merge the leagues as this has also been mooted in Brussels and Amsterdam.

While there are many possibilities up in the air regarding the future of organised league football, what is clear that football at the top level in Ireland and the continent could face major modifications in the future.

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