August 16, 2010
Our boomtime ideology is alive and kicking – and our refusal to look to developing countries to build our economy again will be the death of us.
Can Irish football tell us anything about the state of the country, and just how far we have to travel to compete at the highest level? People might say losing 1-0 to Argentina is a respectable performance – and, in a sense, it is. But let us look at something different. Let us kick off with how much we pay the manager of our national football team.
Did you know that Giovanni Trapattoni’s salary is nearly three times greater than Diego Maradona’s was, when he was Argentina’s boss? Or that he is paid â‚¬600,000 more than Vicente Del Bosque – the Spanish manager who won the World Cup? He is paid more than the coaches of Germany, Italy and the Netherlands.
In fact, Trapattoni – whose team failed to qualify – is the second-highest paid national football manager in the world. If anything underscores the ludicrous gap between international reality and Irish aspirations, it is this.
Why do we feel the need to go down this road? Why, rather than saying we should pay for success, do we still believe that we are rich enough to fork out so much on a manager who is clearly in the twilight of a glittering career? Trapattoni naturally negotiated the best deal for himself, but when you match the quality of the team’s performances and our inability to qualify for the World Cup with his salary, we should ask some questions.
Quite apart from reinforcing the idea that the Irish are prepared to pay over the odds for anything even as the economy sinks, football tells us a bit about how the global economy works and, like so many things these days, all roads lead to China.
Last year, after a particularly miserable Trapattoni affair against Cyprus in Croke Park, I set myself the target of finding the factory that makes the thousands of Irish shirts that clothe the Green Army. I wanted to join the dots of the global economy, and see for myself how a goal in the last minute can have a profound effect on the employment prospects of millions of poor workers in China.
After many calls and false leads from retailers to wholesalers to dye factories and middlemen, I finally reached my nirvana in May last year. Away in a back street called Station Road, in the small Chinese town of Bilung – the knickers and bras capital of the world, where expensive La Perla, Myla and Agent Provocateur lingerie is churned out – lies the factory that makes our shiny, acrylic kit. The workers get â‚¬9 a day and the shirts leave this place costing less than â‚¬1 each.
The fact that they retail for about â‚¬50 at Dublin Airport means that someone along the way is doing very well. On either side of the street are dormitories that house workers. They get bed and board and spend all day in the local internet cafeÂ¤ , which doubles as a snooker hall, a betting shop and a down-at-heel nail bar.
All the workers are from the same village in the interior of China. They appeared happy enough with their lot. They knew Robbie Keane from Roy Keane and Man United from Tottenham Hotspur. They didn’t, however, have a clue where Ireland was.
Like many cities in China, everything happens out on the street. All human life was there, eating, arguing, living and, above all, filling the air with that most Chinese of cacophonies, the great throat-clearing and public gobbing soundtrack.
Quite apart from the typical Chinese street scene,the other thing that caught my attention was that the sewing machines running up the Irish football shirts were made by a German company called Pfaff.
In fact, sewing machine enthusiasts would know that Pfaff is a German company from Kaiserslautern, and is over 140 years old. Having survived unification under Bismarck, two world wars, reparations and reunification under Helmut Kohl, this company – like so much of Germany’s industry – is thriving in China.
This is where the difference between Ireland and Germany is so stark. Ireland imports wildly over-expensive soccer jerseys from China and pays its football coach the second-highest managerial salary in the world for a team that can’t win. We pay for all this with money borrowed from Germany. Germany, on the other hand, supplies China with the means to rip off Ireland. That’s the difference: Germany’s industry is deeply embedded in China so that, when China makes money, Germany does too.
Germany has embraced the new growth economies of the world. It is Europe’s fastest-growing country; in contrast to Ireland, Germany’s unemployment rate has fallen in every one of the past 13 months. Three-quarters of the growth rate comes from exports – and half of those exports are going to China, India and other big, emerging countries like Brazil.
Nearly 75 per cent of all German machinery production goes abroad; China is now a bigger market for German companies than the US.
All this reveals a country with an industrial strategy based on not being left behind. The Germans have invested enormously in the emerging world and, as the west stagnates, Germany has backed China. In a sense, Germany is benefiting more from China’s export growth than China is itself.
In China, the emerging problems of rapid industrialisation are everywhere. There has been huge migration from the countryside to the cities; the cities themselves, like Bilung, are pretty filthy places; and property prices are beginning to wobble, which could have a huge negative impact on the Chinese middle class. The Bank of China ordered its banks last week to stress-test their property loans for a 60 per cent fall in the market. Now that’s what I call a stress-test.
What our few observations about football and economics tell us is that, in Ireland, we still know the price of everything and the value of nothing, while the Germans have figured out the way the world is changing far faster than anyone else. By the way, Trapattoni earns â‚¬650,000 more than Joachim Low, the German manager whose team came third in the World Cup. The Germans, with a population of close to 82 million, could probably afford to pay him more, but know that to do so would be a waste of money.