Republic of Ireland ladies soccer team eye play-off slot

Republic of Ireland ladies soccer team eye play-off slot

Republic of Ireland goalscorers Megan Connolly, left, and Denise O'Sullivan celebrate following the FIFA Women's World Cup 2023 qualifying group A match between Finland and Republic of Ireland at Helsinki Olympic Stadium in Helsinki, Finland. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Republic of Ireland players can be forgiven for looking on enviously at Euro 2022 but the senior women’s opportunity to qualify for a first major finals is fast approaching.

It is only July but Irish international football supporters have September 1st and 6th circled on their calendars.

Those are the dates Vera Pauw’s side’s concluding FIFA World Cup - UEFA Group A qualifying matches against Finland and Slovakia are scheduled for completion.

Ireland are currently second in their group, eight points behind already-qualified Sweden but a point clear of third placed Finland.

The latter are in Dublin on the first day of September hoping to reverse Ireland’s 2-1 victory in Helsinki from the previous October. 

Megan Connolly and Cork native Denise O’Sullivan scored on that occasion.

The 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup is being jointly-held by Australia and New Zealand next July. So the trip of a lifetime is on offer for whoever emerges from Europe’s qualification groups and play-offs over the coming months.

As for Vera Pauw and her squad, victory on September 1st would cement a World Cup play-off berth. 

That’s because all nine UEFA group runners-up will get a chance to qualify for the 2023 tournament taking place down under.

The six countries with the worst UEFA group runners-up records will contest three first round play-offs (one-off matches involving extra-time and penalties if needed) in early October.

Winners from those three first round encounters will join the three UEFA group runners-up with the best qualification records in round two of the play-offs.

Republic of Ireland head coach Vera Pauw reacts after the final whistle during the Women's FIFA World Cup Qualifying - Group A match between the Republic of Ireland and Georgia at the Tallaght Stadium, Dublin. Picture date: Tuesday November 30, 2021.
Republic of Ireland head coach Vera Pauw reacts after the final whistle during the Women's FIFA World Cup Qualifying - Group A match between the Republic of Ireland and Georgia at the Tallaght Stadium, Dublin. Picture date: Tuesday November 30, 2021.

Those second round ties will produce two automatic (best ranked) World Cup 2023 qualifiers. 

The lowest ranked UEFA qualifying winner will have to negotiate an inter-confederation tournament, being held in New Zealand the following February, to make it through.

Republic of Ireland players don’t need to be reminded that they have yet to qualify for a major finals. 

It has been a constant interview soundbite since the Irish failed to make it to this summer’s European Championships.

What cannot be denied is that reaching the next Australia and New Zealand-based World Cup is now tantalisingly close for Vera Pauw and her squad.

Unlike Ireland, the Finns successfully made it through to this summer’s Euro 2022 tournament. Irrespective of results, you couldn’t ask for better preparation ahead of their crunch visit to Dublin in two months time.

Qualification came about thanks to Finland topping their UEFA group ahead of Portugal, Scotland, Albania and Cyprus, all without losing a game. Ranked 25th in the world, Finland will have the benefit of facing Spain (a 4-1 loss), Denmark and Germany during this past week’s group stage.

Former Swedish international player and the current manager of the Finnish women’s team, Anna Signeul, will be eager for her team to build on the experience of facing three quality opponents whilst in England.

Losing 2-1 at home to Vera Pauw’s side was a devastating blow to Signeul’s hopes of making it to the next World Cup. So expect Finland, irrespective of their Euro 2022 exploits, to go for the proverbial jugular against Ireland in early September. What choice do they have?

This summer’s European Championships are already proving a huge success thanks to record attendances and some terrific football.

How the Republic of Ireland must wish they could have been a part of what’s turning into a hugely entertaining spectacle.

Look at the boost Northern Ireland women’s football has received since making their first appearance at a European Championships. Although the North lost 4-1 to Norway and to 2-0 Austria, Friday night’s high-profile showdown against England at Southampton’s St Mary’s Stadium will have done wonders for promoting the game north of the border.

That’s another reason why the Republic of Ireland qualifying for the next World Cup is imperative to growing the game at grassroots, Women’s National League and international level.

Remember what Euro 88’ and Italia 90’ did for the men’s game in this country?

The sight of Katie McCabe, Denise O’Sullivan, Saoirse Noonan, Diane Caldwell, Amber Barrett and Louise Quinn playing on the highest possible stage at a World Cup finals would inspire a new generation of Irish footballers.

Vera Pauw and her players are not there yet. You can hardly blame the Republic of Ireland women’s senior setup for dreaming of competing at a World Cup for the very first time next year.

There could be two, or possibly three, difficult play-off ties to overcome. For now, it is a case of roll on September and October when the girls in green have the chance to create their own piece of history.

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