Larry Ryan: Germany result isn’t a referendum on progress for Irish women’s football

It would still be nice to beat them today though
Larry Ryan: Germany result isn’t a referendum on progress for Irish women’s football

Rianna Jarrett, left, and Louise Quinn warm up during Ireland women’s training session at Stadion Essen in Germany, ahead of the Euro 2021 qualifier this afternoon. Picture: Lukas Schulze/Sportsfile

The nine-year-old isn’t sure yet if she’ll bother becoming a professional footballer.

All her twin brother has left to decide is what position he’ll play in for — controversially — Manchester City. But she has too many other things she wants to do with her life and feels it might be quite time-consuming, all that training and travelling to matches. And she’ll have an ice-cream shop to run, after all.

Of the Irish team, Louise Quinn is her favourite, partly because she wears glasses in real life. And she hopes Louise is getting on alright in Italy, and is making friends.

When you think about it, herself’s experience of football is a version of her father’s many decades ago — a live match on TV featuring somebody from her gender once in a blue moon.

Germany v Ireland today on RTÉ would have been the latest, but for her First Communion.

Which might be just as well. Because, let’s face it, it’s a fixture that could go badly wrong for Ireland, against the number two ranked team in the world.

That’s underestimating them, no doubt, the women and the girls watching. Herself is resilient to various shades of disappointment anyway.

Most recently, she twigged a familiar pattern with the Panini Adrenalyn Premier League trading cards that now inhabit their universe.

“They already had Match Attax for boys, why didn’t they make these ones with girls?”

Sometimes, it’s hard to know how persuasive it has been, the gradual climb in the profile of women’s sport. A decade ago herself would likely not have known women’s football existed. Instead, she knows it’s there, but smaller. Less famous. Less glamourous.

That might be another reason she’s edging towards the ice cream vocation — most of what she sees still tells her the serious stuff is for boys.

Though, that said, there was something about the Champions League final between Lyon and Wolfsburg that convinced her this was the big time.

“It looks real.”

Mostly, women’s football doesn’t look real enough, seemingly. The stadiums (and once the crowds) are too small. There’s a layer of gloss missing. She met Saoirse Noonan once in the park, so was excited to see a video of her smashing in a worldie for Cork City last week. But the backdrop in Bishopstown wasn’t fancy enough for her tastes.

She’s been told that women’s football is just catching up, and that by the time she’s ready to turn pro, it’ll be the exact same as the men’s game. That Champions League final — one day that’s how it’ll look all the time.

Maybe that’s true. It’s easy forget how young the sport is.

Today Ireland takes on Europe’s powerhouse — eight Euros and two World Cups. Yet, next month brings up just 50 years since Germany lifted its ban on women’s football.

Ireland actually pipped the Germans to a first competitive game, both only getting started in 1982.

Last year, the German FA finally created a Hall of Fame for its female legends. But, as broadcaster Deutsche Welle noted, “it was hard to reconcile such proven football success with the smallness of the low-key and thinly attended Hall of Fame commemoration.”

On the night, Silke Rottenberg, who played 125 times in goal for them, wasn’t exactly producing rousing battle cries: “We still don’t dream of making the same money as the men because that’s totally unrealistic.”

The 1950s Fortuna Dortmund side was there too, one of the many unofficial women’s teams around the world to defy postwar bans.

Deutsche Welle added: “Despite rejection from society and football’s institutions, they counted on the support of family, friends and their community, to pursue their passion for the sport. The older guard told a story of women who stubbornly stuck to football thanks to individual persistence and with help from their community.”

A chapter in Champagne Football, the new book on the John Delaney years, retells the shocking story of how the Ireland women’s team had been treated like the “dirt off the FAI’s shoe”, as their spokesperson, Stuart Gilhooly, put it.

The words of Emma Byrne, who played 134 times in goal for us, remain among the most poignant uttered by an Irish footballer on international duty: 

Give us a tracksuit, it’s not that difficult. I’m actually a little embarrassed talking about it.”

The book describes what happened three years ago as “the biggest confrontation between players and the FAI since the men threatened to go on strike in the late 1960s over similar issues”.

Another reminder of a time lag counted in decades. It’s why there’s always a certain jeopardy on days like this. If a men’s senior international is forever a referendum on playing style, these are the days progress is measured for the whole women’s game. And there are many who would write off much after a heavy defeat.

But as much as money is beginning to trickle into the apex of women’s football, this is still a sport being shaped and grown from the bottom up.

As the German Hall of Famers pointed out last year, that is the real progress. The young Silke Rottenberg had nowhere to play, now most nine-year-olds do.

Herself played with the club’s U11s last Saturday, and she loved it. For her and most of them, it was the first proper match of their lives. A magnificent, joyful game.

There are no results really, yet. No league tables. It doesn’t matter. But of course it matters.

It’s easy to tell they don’t watch as much football as boys their age, because they don’t throw quite as many shapes, for better or worse. Though a few of them have a Ronaldo celebration in the locker.

I’m lending a hand to the tireless women who have made this happen for them. So beforehand, feeling obliged to rally the troops, threw out the clichés you’d use with boys. Reminders to encourage, not to blame.

There was no need, they were so endlessly supportive of each other they might have been instinctively drawing on decades of rejection from society.

I told them too they should be so proud, wearing a jersey for the first time that so many great players, internationals, had worn. That didn’t strike any chord, until one remembered a role model. “Yeah, my auntie played.”

A reminder they will first look close to home for inspiration. The current German team summed that up well in their promo ahead of last year’s World Cup.

“We play for a nation that doesn’t even know our names.

“When it comes to role models, we just have to look in the mirror.

“Don’t worry, you don’t need to know who we are.

“You just need to know what we want.

“We want to play our own game to our own beat.”

It would still be nice to beat them today.

Time is right for Underdogs

It was good to listen to the Cork crowd revisit the double during the week, as they get ready to celebrate the next one.

For a great cause, in Marymount (visit: idonate.ie/goredforcork), there were even a few new stories excavated, to go with the dozens we can all reel off by heart.

It was a reminder too, though, how deeply embedded in our culture men’s sport is, how much colour we can paint between the lines of victory and defeat.

In contrast, how many can tell you what was said at half-time in any women’s dressing room in sporting history? How little do we know about the friendships, the feuds, the bitter words, the controversy.

Hopefully, popular TG4 show Underdogs is taking another step to redressing that imbalance, with the latest series searching for a team of ladies footballers who have slipped the inter-county net.

Having already seen some early applications, producer Adam Martin-Connolly of Adare Productions is convinced there is some intriguing television in store.

There are myriad reasons, he says, why some talented women just never found the timing right for the county scene. Finding the colour in those black and white calls should prove illuminating and entertaining.

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