The FAI dropped the ball... why did it all have to come to this?

In her weekly column Ailin Quinlan looks at a story that hit headlines all over the world this week, regarding Ireland's women's soccer team
The FAI dropped the ball... why did it all have to come to this?
Republic of Ireland Women's National Team captain Emma Byrne, centre, with team-mates. Picture: Cody Glenn/Sportsfile

IT’S peculiar, isn’t it, how the same dismissive attitude seems to apply no matter where you are in the world — as long as you’re a woman.

I was reading a disturbing article about the women on the US National Hockey Team which reported that many of them had to hold down second and even third jobs to make ends meet. Last month, the team threatened to boycott the world championship unless they got better compensation and better support.

The female players, the article pointed out, weren’t even invited to the public unveiling of the Team USA jerseys for the 2014 Olympics — the inside collar of those jerseys commemorated men’s Olympic champions but not the 1998 gold-medal-winning women’s team.

Phew. And it seems it isn’t just the female hockey players who have to contend with this kind of treatment. Last year, five members of the US women’s soccer team — the defending World Cup champions — filed a wage-discrimination suit against that sport’s national governing body, arguing that women players received only about a quarter of the compensation given to their their male counterparts. Only this week, and after a protracted battle, the female players got a new contract and a very justifiable raise.

And now, here, earlier in the week, we had the Irish women’s soccer team threatening to boycott next Monday’s friendly international against Slovakia in a dispute over compensation for playing and over some utterly incredible stuff which included, believe it or not, the right to choose their union representatives!

The players were seeking a €300 match fee for future games along with a few bits and pieces like smaller win bonuses with payments for certified loss of earnings for the amateurs and assorted other benefits like gym memberships and personalised strength and conditioning programmes.

But wait a minute, you ask. There must be some mistake. Surely be to the Lord God, with all this know-how about the importance of fitness and total toning and getting the specific kind of training for the game you play and the muscles you use, players on the Irish soccer team would em, automatically be entitled to something basic, like gym membership? Er, no? Not, it seemed, female players, anyway.

They were, we realised, being forced to ask for it — repeatedly. The fact that players representing this country abroad actually had to request the most basic resources, resources that even the most un-athletic onlooker would assume they would be entitled to as a matter of course, would be laughable it it wasn’t so damnably, incredibly offensive.

Once it hit the headlines, with all those sporty, fit, pretty, articulate women looking solemn and justifiably outraged in front of a phalanx of eager photographers and journalists, it didn’t take long for the FAI to scramble for what was clearly going to be an inevitable climb-down — the players’ press conference was Tuesday and by the early hours of Thursday it was all sorted.

In fact, we all woke up to the news on Morning Ireland that, according to a statement released at 3.30am that day — 3.30am! — the issues of concern to the players, who, by the way had described themselves as being treated as “fifth-class citizens” by the big organisation, had been addressed. And everything was hunky-dory.

However, at the end of the day what all this kerfuffle will really be remembered for, what is really going to be the embarrassing take-home headline from all of this and what, I imagine, will dog the FAI for a long time to come, is the banal, though hideously cringe-making revelation that female footballers representing this country abroad had to change out of their Irish tracksuits in the airport toilet en route home — so their kits could be used by underage players. In other words, the doggone organisation wouldn’t shell out for enough kits for women players.

Dear God. It’s only then that we started to really take in the implications — for example, the bit about how amateur players were taking up to 40 days of unpaid leave to be part of the squad. Unpaid leave?

The rest of us were quite shocked to realise the players had received, according to Karen Duggan, last year’s senior international player of the year, no reimbursements at all for six years. Squad members, we learned, were forced to go public in their plea for very modest payments from the association so that amateur players wouldn’t have to worry about taking unpaid leave to play for their country. All the while, as the media headlines proclaimed, the FAI’s Chief Executive — who, by the way, was on the record as saying very clearly that every girl was entitled to the same opportunities every boy had, in terms of playing football — was getting an eye-watering reported €360,000 salary.

Meanwhile, and almost as incredibly, the FAI was trying to dictate that only actual members of the team could engage in negotiations with it and not representatives of the Professional Footballers Association of Ireland with whom the organisation was refusing to engage — despite the fact that, as one squad member observed, they were footballers, not industrial negotiators. They had tried doing it and got nowhere.

Well of course, once it went public and the FAI was rightly humiliated in the eyes of the entire country — and, better still, all over the world — the whole thing got sorted, in the blink of an eye.

The rest of us were left wondering: But why did it have to get to that? The players’ requests were so modest, it just doesn’t make sense. What was all this down to?

We are forced to reach the conclusion that, although, yes — I had to check there for a minute — it is indeed the year 2017, a big burning question hangs over this whole embarrassing affair.

Was it really — and in this day and age — all down to a prevailing attitude that, yerra, sure they’re only women; it’s just women’s football anyway, so they and their little games a) don’t matter and b) are easier to ignore because nobody gives a damn about any of it anyway. Is that it?

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