Eimear Ryan: Next summer's women's World Cup will be extraordinary

Progress in women's sport has been so glacial over the decades, but so rapid in the last few years, that you can almost feel the ground shifting beneath your feet in real time
Eimear Ryan: Next summer's women's World Cup will be extraordinary

HISTORIC: Denise O'Sullivan of Republic of Ireland celebrates after the FIFA Women's World Cup 2023 Play-off match between Scotland and Republic of Ireland at Hampden Park in Glasgow, Scotland. Pic: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

In my mind, I’m still constantly replaying that Amber Barrett goal. If, in function, it was like Alan McLoughlin’s equaliser against Northern Ireland in 1993 – the golden goal that secured qualification – in form it was more like Shane Long’s winner against Germany in October 2015: breaking onto the long ball, a squadron of defenders chasing, a near-perfect first touch and an audacious finish to the corner.

The aftermath was similar, too: a dogged, seemingly never-ending 20-minute spell as the opposition bombarded the Irish goal. Darren Randolph held solid seven years ago and so, on Tuesday night, did the formidable Courtney Brosnan. Bedlam. Scenes. History in the making.

The Irish women are through to their first major tournament, next summer’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, and the nation couldn’t be happier for them. In women’s sport, progress has been so glacial over the decades, but so rapid in the last few years in particular, that in moments such as this you can almost feel the ground shifting beneath your feet in real time.

The summer of 2019 – the last women’s World Cup – was another such moment. The women’s games were being shown on big screens in every pub I walked into. On coffee break at my office job, people were discussing the matches. There was genuine excitement and engagement in a women’s team sport, even without Irish involvement. If that’s any indication, next summer will be extraordinary.

Who would have predicted we’d be in this position? It’s only just over five years ago that the Irish women’s squad held their Liberty Hall press conference to protest their shabby treatment by the FAI: no appearance fees, no gear, no gym memberships, and most egregious of all – being forced to tog out in airport toilets.

Aine O’Gorman, Louise Quinn and Niamh Fahey were all part of that press conference. ‘What we are fighting for here is equality,’ said Emma Byrne, then captain and goalkeeper. ‘We are fighting for the future of women’s football.’ Five years later, that future has been assured – thanks to the efforts and bravery of Byrne and countless others.

The compressed nature of progress in women’s sports means that some great players miss out, just barely. Puskas Award nominee Stephanie Roche – a longtime member of the team, and a prominent face in the strike action of 2017 – has been in and out of Vera Pauw’s squad, and was on co-commentary duties with George Hamilton on Tuesday night. While she was clearly thrilled at the win, it had to have been bittersweet.

On RTÉ radio the next day, Lisa Fallon, the first woman to coach a professional men’s team in Ireland, described what World Cup qualification meant to her:

"I remember in 1988 when the Republic of Ireland men’s team qualified to go to Germany. I remember Italia 90. As a twelve-year-old girl, I had never seen women on TV in football. The only people I ever saw were men. I distinctly remember as a kid thinking, I wish I was a boy, because football was the only thing I ever wanted to do from the time I was really young, but I just couldn’t see it.

"And that’s the biggest piece that these girls have changed – because their games have been on TV, because young girls and boys have been able to go to the games … It’s become normal now. That whole generation will see it as normal that women play football in big stadiums and can play well and can have a dream and a career in football and can go to World Cups. They have given a vision … for an entire generation. That is a legacy that is just so powerful."

In the five years that I’ve been writing about sport, there’s been a sea change in the way women’s sport is represented in the media. In 2017, women’s sport would flare up at certain times of year – the Olympics, Wimbledon, the women’s World Cup, the All-Ireland finals – but otherwise, all was quiet on the female front.

These days, if you’re scrolling the sports section of a national newspaper, you’re as likely to see a splash image featuring a woman – Katie McCabe or Leona Maguire or Ciara Mageean or Vikki Wall – as you are a man. The morning after the Scotland game, Amber Barrett – and her beautiful gesture towards the people of Creeslough and her home county of Donegal – was on the landing page of most Irish media outlets.

It’s been interesting to see how different publications have made room for the increased visibility of women’s sport. Newspapers like the Telegraph have invested heavily in their women’s sports coverage, with their own dedicated pages for women’s soccer, rugby and cricket.

Outlets like The Guardian have taken a different approach: rather than siloing off women’s sport into their own categories, they’ve folded them into their existing football, rugby and cricket categories. It’s a tricky balance to strike. While putting men’s and women’s coverage in the same category gives them parity of esteem, it can also make the women’s coverage harder to find.

And sometimes coverage of women’s sport can be of the painful variety. Sally Yates’s investigation into abuses in the US’s NWSL (National Women’s Soccer League) has featured prominently in headlines of late, and it makes for sobering reading. The report found that emotional abuse and sexual misconduct were ‘systemic’ in the NWSL, with multiple players impacted.

Just as appalling as the misconduct of individual coaches was the collective inaction by the US Soccer Federation, which ‘repeatedly failed to respond appropriately when confronted with player reports and evidence of abuse’. This failure allowed abusive coaches to move from club to club, in a horribly familiar cycle that we have seen repeated across different contexts and cases of abuse.

Hopefully, the need for this sort of coverage when it comes to women’s sport becomes a thing of the past. The countdown to July 2023 starts here. Come on you girls in green – or orange, as the case may be.

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