Sarah O'Dwyer: Women step into the light

Sarah O'Dwyer: Women step into the light

Republic of Ireland celebrate after the FIFA Women's World Cup 2023 qualifying play-off match at Hampden Park, Glasgow. 

LET us take a step back in time for a moment, to just six short years ago. The year was 2017, and Ireland’s women’s footballers were forced to go public with some of the extraordinary conditions they were working and playing under in the hopes of better treatment from the Football Association of Ireland (FAI).

Just in case anyone needs a reminder, these women claimed they were forced to change into and out of their team kits — which were also incredibly being used by underage teams — in an airport toilets before and after away trips.

They also highlighted financial inadequacies, and called for a number of what most elite men’s teams (and hopefully at this stage most women’s elite teams too) would classify as fairly basic things.

These included gym membership, access to a nutritionist and individual strength and conditioning programmes. They called for their tracksuits and gear to be provided to them before they got to the airport for away games.

They asked for all non-professional players to receive loss of earnings documented from their employers, and they wanted the goalkeeper coach to remain for a full campaign and not change game-to-game. All fairly basic.

Regarding finances and specific games or tournaments, they asked for a match fee for all international fixtures of €300, a bonus for competitive fixtures of €150 per win and €75 per draw and qualification bonuses to be agreed prior to the start of a qualification campaign.

At the time they called a press conference where captain at the time, Emma Byrne, described their treatment as “humiliating”.

“There have been issues, not just for the last few years, but for a very long time now. We’re here to try and get those issues resolved,” she said.

The players withdrew from training and threatened not to play in an upcoming friendly with Slovakia. An agreement was subsequently reached between the players and the FAI.

Really, up until this incident in 2017, the women’s national team occupied a fairly peripheral place in Irish sporting life. Barring Stephanie Roche being nominated for FIFA’s 2014 Puskas Award for a phenomenal goal she scored for Peamount United against Wexford Youths — she ended up finishing runner-up to James Rodriguez — the Irish women’s soccer team was not one which had appeared very frequently on most people’s radar.

Following the 2017 fiasco, however, Netherlands’ Vera Pauw was hired as national manager, and she almost helped the squad to qualify to the Euro 2022 competition.

Then, move forward to last year and the qualification campaign for this year’s Fifa Women’s World Cup was a regular topic of conversation. Most people who are in any way interested in sport tuned in to watch the games. The fact that they were readily available free-to-air also helped.

The qualification for the tournament and the manner in which it was done was a far cry from the issues raised by the players in 2017. The reforms have paid dividends, and the world-class manager in Vera Pauw has certainly brought a whole new level to the squad.

FIFA Ballon d’Or nominees Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo look on as FIFA Puskas Award nominee Stephanie Roche of Republic of Ireland arrives for the FIFA Ballon d’Or Gala 2014 in Zurich, Switzerland.	 Picture: Alexander Hassenstein - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images
FIFA Ballon d’Or nominees Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo look on as FIFA Puskas Award nominee Stephanie Roche of Republic of Ireland arrives for the FIFA Ballon d’Or Gala 2014 in Zurich, Switzerland. Picture: Alexander Hassenstein - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images

The Fifa Women’s World Cup takes place in July and August this year, and is being jointly hosted by Australia and New Zealand. Ireland’s three group games take place in July. First up, they take on Australia on July 20 at 11am. Then on July 26 they face Canada at 1pm. Their final group game is against Nigeria on July 31 at 11am. (All times are Irish time.)

While the games all take place during the summer time, this next few months would be an ideal time for schools to give, particularly young girls, the opportunity to play soccer. It is a much bigger sport among females now than it was when I was in school, but regardless the more girls that play, the larger the talent pool will become for these tournaments going forward.

From a general health perspective, just using the image of these women who are performing on a global stage to promote soccer and even general sport and physical activity among girls is a no-brainer. Many of these players are now household names in Ireland. Some are TV pundits, some play other sports that people may be interested in, while some are widely known on social media.

Regardless of how the team fare at the World Cup, this is an opportunity for women’s football to make its mark on Irish life and if that happens, in my mind, the tournament has already been a success from an Irish perspective.

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