Declan McBennett, RTE’s head of sport, spoke earlier this week about the national station’s coverage of last year’s Women World Cup and his sense that the tournament had proven to be a Rubicon moment for female sport around the globe.
It was easy to see why.
With all 52 games televised live between RTE and TG4, viewers were presented with the full panoply of the good, the bad and even the ugly that was the USA’s 13-0 defeat of Thailand in Reims, Cameroon’s misbehaviour in the round of 16 fixture against England and claims that the women’s game was being used as a guinea pig for freshly-minted rules.
The tournament broke commercial and visibility barriers but the truth is that most people cross that particular river in drips and drabs, at our own pace and at our own time of choosing. Some have always called the far side home, others will never even countenance getting their feet wet but the rate at which the wider public fully embraces women’s sport ebbs and flows on the basis of much more than one billboard event every four years.
Women’s sport has taken enormous steps forward in Ireland in recent years with the attendances at big games in Croke Park, Donnybrook (for rugby and hockey) and here in Tallaght reaching unprecedented levels but last night’s crowd of 4,511 was roughly 800 down on the figure announced when the side saw off Ukraine 3-2 last year.
Progress isn’t always linear.
The Republic of Ireland didn’t make it to France last summer. For them the promised land of a major tournament appearance remains a mental as much as a geographical barrier and making next year’s European Championships demanded nothing less than three points against Greece last night. Vera Pauw, the team coach, said as much.
That the 2021 tournament is to be held in England has only made that prospect all the more alluring. Who knows what it could conjure up. Maybe even a meeting with the hosts at Old Trafford in the opener in early July. It’s hard not to throw an eye at the grand stage when the gig is happening next door but this wasn’t the night to be blinded by the bright lights.
There can’t have been many among Pauw’s squad who didn’t cast their mind back to last November’s meeting with the Greeks in Athens when an injury-time equaliser from Anastasia Spyridonidou sentenced the visitors to a 1-1 draw. That and four months of penance given the marked superiority they had exhibited for so long that day.
It was hard watching Ireland that afternoon and not think back to the time 15 years ago when Brian Kerr’s Irish men’s side dominated Israel in Tel Aviv, taken the lead via Clinton Morrison and only to back off and back off until the inevitable price was paid in the form of an Abas Suan goal.
Ireland’s campaign never recovered with Israel repeating the dose by claiming another draw in Lansdowne Road. On such tipping points do entire histories and careers shift. Still, forewarned should be forearmed and Pauw’s Ireland knew just how tricky this would be again against a side that frustrated them with their obduracy and, at times, gamesmanship late last year.
Ireland had seen recent campaigns falter at just about this midway point with losses to Finland and Norway and the Greeks seemed to make a very public declaration of intent as they strode as one from the Maldron Hotel across the road and into Tallaght Stadium before kick-off, the entire squad led by a party member bearing a large Hellenic flag. They aren’t the first side to have adopted that ‘tactic’ but it proved to be one of the few advances against an Irish side superior in pretty much every department but one that never reached a point where they could relax, secure in the knowledge that the game was beyond the visitors.
Pauw had urged her team to ‘fight like tigers’ in her match programme notes and, while Diane Caldwell’s opener on the stroke of half-time was an overdue dividend for their efforts, Ireland backed away as the second-half unfolded and very nearly paid the penalty that would have been near fatal to their ambitions.
There was a split second in the 75th minute when it looked as if Veatriki Sarri’s curling effort from just outside the box was going to arc past Marie Hourihan’s left hand and dip inside her far post. It was that close. Too similar to the scene in Athens when they were caught so late. And reminiscent of the 2-0 lead they coughed up to Ukraine before finding a winner.
If this Ireland team is to make it then they seem intent on getting there the hard way.
Nothing new there.