Ireland must use Italia '90 moment to improve women's game at every level

Vera Pauw has guided her side to a first World Cup but lasting change will only come with investment
Ireland must use Italia '90 moment to improve women's game at every level

Ireland’s Megan Connolly with manager Vera Pauw. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

THIS summer, Irish women’s football will change forever once the team steps out and makes their debut at a major international tournament.

The entire planet will be watching Vera Pauw and her players as they compete in the Fifa Women’s World Cup, the biggest competition the sport has to offer.

It is a story that is only equalled by Italia ’90 and Jack Charlton getting Ireland to their first World Cup, and they captured the imagination of the nation by reaching the quarter-finals.

Everyone over a certain age knows where they were when David O’Leary scored that penalty, and what those days were like between 1986 and 1988.

Instead of being the start of something long-lasting, the three World Cup appearances between 1990 and 2002 ended up as a brief affair as Irish football descended into chaos after the penalty shoot-out defeat to Spain in South Korea.

The downfall of the game accumulated in a number of events, including the FAI teetering on the brink of insolvency in 2019 and the women’s team threating strike action at Liberty Hall in 2017.

The majority of these were organisational, on the pitch the men’s team have gone 20 years without qualifying for a World Cup and they have plummeted down the Fifa World Rankings.


Daire Whelan in Who Stole Our Game? sums it up as: “The problem although Irish football was suddenly flying high, it had nothing to anchor it to the ground because success was built on shaky foundations laid by the League of Ireland management.”

Fran Gavin, who once worked as director of the Women’s National League, is quoted in the book as saying: “You felt that we would all benefit, that all boats would rise with that tide. Now that you had finance coming into the game, it would be pumped back into Irish football and into the League of Ireland at the time.

“Facilities would improve and, generally the whole thing would be on the up and up. But that didn’t happen.”

In 2023, it is a different era, but the sense of event remains the same, but what will happen after the women’s national team return from the World Cup?

Denise O'Sullivan of Republic of Ireland. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Denise O'Sullivan of Republic of Ireland. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

The metaphorical glass ceiling has been shattered and a sense of expectation has been created, what can be done to counteract the mistakes that haunt the legacy of 1990-2002?

One underlying factor is that the gulf in quality between women’s teams can be large, and other nations could quickly catch up with the likes of Ireland.

This isn’t a reflection on the FAI, but a cause to constantly push for improvement in standards and facilities.


England are a testament to this as they keep working towards an endgame that is getting closer with each passing year, they even won two international trophies over the last 12 months.

They had a clear-cut plan that started with the creation of the Women’s Super League, a fully professional football for female footballers. This snowballed into international success and an £8m TV rights deal, with that money getting divvied out with some going towards clubs in the WSL and the FA Women’s Championship.

The country is constantly looking to improve and bring things to the next level, even with their domestic league the biggest on the continent.

All of this came from the need to reinvent, to push the boundaries of what success is, and to keep striving for higher standards.

What about Ireland, with a semi-professional league that doesn’t have a TV deal?

Huge progress has been made over the last decade with the creation of the Women’s National League, but football thrives on innovation. If Ireland stay on their current path, there is a possibility that qualifying for major tournaments will become a regular occurrence but other nations could catch up.

There’s no shortage of examples of countries that had one ‘golden generation’ then faded into international obscurity, like the Bulgarian team that lost to Italy in the semi-finals of the 1994 World Cup.

Ireland are already showing promise, with a new crop of players emerging from underage level. The U19s are a testament to this as they recently beat Norway and Croatia at a qualifying tournament and that made sure the country remains as a second seed for future tournaments.

The majority of these players started out in the Women’s National League, like the current senior squad. Now it is all about keeping up the good work while pushing for innovation that constantly elevates the standards to the next level.

What happens next could be any number of things, from centralised contracts with the FAI to investment in centres of excellence around the country.

This is the time and moment; it is not a moment to look back on with regret in 33 years.

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