This week, I chatted briefly with the aunt of an Irish soccer international. As usual, the arm was the opener. “What did you do to the arm?”
This time, pride trumped concern. “Oh, my niece plays soccer for Ireland.” Irish women’s soccer international, to use the expected clarification.
Like the relatives of all soccer internationals, this woman’s clearest recollection of those formative years was of all the driving. To training, to matches, to international camps.
Driving that didn’t always appeal to other members of the family. The aunt remembered one spin, in particular, when a weekend day-out with her two nieces was cut short for an evening kick-off.
“I hate your soccer. It ruins everything,” groused the younger sister in the back seat.
“You’ll be glad when I’m making €50,000 a week,” shot back the future Ireland soccer international.
For any mother or father or aunt or uncle of a little girl who is still convinced of a rich and varied future as a dancer and footballer and spacewoman and royal resident of an ice palace on a hill; it will cause a small collapse of sadness to realise that a day must have dawned when the older girl in that back seat realised that no matter how good she became, or how committed she was, or how far she travelled, there would likely be no €50,000 a week.
There might, if she was exceptionally good, and particularly committed, be a precarious, not very lucrative, future to be scratched out.
And for any mother or father or aunt or uncle of a little girl with big dreams, it will gladden their hearts to know that this one pressed on regardless.
Still, parting question from the sportswriter to the aunt: what’s her name again?
Rings a bell, alright.
That’s what you’re dealing with. The reality.
But then hey, thems the breaks. Nothing much changed through sympathy, sadness or wishful thinking.
Those sensitive old souls at the English FA drew attention to themselves this week by welcoming back England’s World Cup bronze medalists with a tweet that consigned them immediately to a withdrawal into domestic anonymity.
“Our #Lionesses go back to being mothers, partners and daughters today but they have taken on another title – heroes.”
Perhaps it was simply a determination to remedy their failings with the men’s game, where they never leveraged a golden generation by focusing on breeding the next one.
In one sense, the FA response was exactly the correct one, because it generated controvassy, and controvassy was the one proven way the ‘Lionesses’ could prolong their exposure to the media glare before being blown off-stage by the gale whirling through the transfer window.
It should be noted that the camogie and ladies Gaelic football associations immediately copied this strategy with their own controversy.
But in another way, the FA’s sentiment was the exact wrong one, a resigned acceptance this was women’s sport and it would always know its place. Women’s sport. Women in sport. Those phrases have gained a lot of what some people might call ‘traction’ in recent times. New organisations and initiatives and websites and social media accounts spring up nearly weekly.
Much of the work is essential, particularly at grassroots level where efforts to boost participation rates are so important. There is much practical lobbying to be done too, of broadcasters and government and sponsors and the education sector. But is there a small danger that all this talk of women’s sport does as much as the FA tweet to put women in the corner?
When the nation held its breath for Sonia, was it consciously watching women’s athletics? When we briefly leapt on the hockey bandwagon in recent weeks, did we much care whether it was the women or men’s team?
The case of Katie Taylor is slightly different. Somehow, we are watching women’s boxing alright, or probably not watching at all, because nobody is showing it.
But isn’t there a danger in creating a women’s sport niche, one that almost begs for attention based on our sense of responsibility?
That never really worked for the League of Ireland.
Instead, ought women’s sporting bodies not be inspired by the extraordinary attention that will focus on Las Vegas tonight? A fight that was promoted seemingly for decades, called off and another one switched in seamlessly with no obvious let-up in the hullaballoo.
Better salesmen that anyone on Glengarry Glen Ross.
This paper has been coaxed on board through public demand. Every website is all over it. Ken Early has travelled for Second Captains.
A sport has grabbed a profile and an audience from nothing and beaten it senseless. Admittedly, it has done so in the ugliest possible manner, but it does show what can be done.
So does a British audience of nearly two million at midnight for the Lionesses.
So does our own slightly bizarre media preoccupation with Stephanie Roche.
It might be a rather unfair preoccupation, since Roche has achieved nothing in football compared to somebody like Emma Byrne, who has achieved everything with Arsenal. But she has grabbed that audience and clung on. She did what you’ve got to do when those back seat dreams hit a dead-end.
And edged out of that pigeonhole marked ‘women’s sport’.
Serena serves up imperious display
Nobody has to beg us to watch the women’s tennis at Wimbledon.
You could easily focus on the unfairness, if you watched Serena Williams play Maria Sharapova this week, or in their previous 16 meetings, and considered that Sharapova is the higher earner. But we don’t need to fret too much for Serena, cashflow-wise, so we’ll just admire her.
Is there any sportsperson who can simultaneously make the game look effortless yet unbearable toil?
At times, it’s not so much the physical effort she expends as the sheer philosophical travail. On some days, such as during the defeat of Heather Watson, every point is dug, chiseled from deep within her being, the sheer inconvenience etched all over her face. Scaling Everest with a car on her back.
Then there are long stretches when she barely seems to move at all, know-how summoning every ball towards her, to be dismissed without favour.
When she combine these states and becomes a pillar of slightly-truculent invulnerability, the effect is imperious.
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