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Why I have a girl crush on... Ireland's women's football team


EARLIER THIS WEEK, the world of Irish soccer was rocked when the women’s national team threatened to withdraw from training and boycott a scheduled match with Slovakia unless the FAI addressed a number of issues.

In an astonishing press conference held in Liberty Hall earlier, the assembled members of the team, including team captain Emma Byrne and Stephanie Roche, outlined their grievances with the FAI.

“Last year we gave up over 40 working days to train and prepare for international games,” they explained in a joint statement. “This level of commitment is unsustainable in the current framework. We currently receive no loss of earnings, no match fee or bonus for the time give to represent the country.”

In another statement, they outlined the issues they wanted to be addressed. It made for embarrassing, infuriating reading.

Among other things, the team were asking for gym memberships, access to nutritionists, access to strength and conditioning programmes, hotels with working Wi-Fi, loss of earnings, match fees and qualification bonuses.

All basic, modest requests, we’re sure you’ll agree.

The complaint that really hammered home just how shameful their treatment was, though? The revelation that the team were forced to share their kits with underage teams and change in airport bathrooms.

Let’s just take a moment to process the indignity of representing your country and having to change into your kit in a cramped, chlorine-scented airport toilet cubicle, shall we?

To see Stephanie Roche speak out passionately on behalf of the team just three years after being feted by FIFA for her iconic goal was nothing short of maddening. Once hailed by the FAI’s John Delaney as a “godsend” for women’s football in Ireland, here she was having to fight for her own kit.

The message? “We value you when you generate positive publicity for us, but gym memberships? That’s a bridge too far.”

There is always a risk with speaking out against the powers that be –  a risk that the public won’t quite see your point of view and that your concerns will be dismissed as being trivial or par for the course.

In this instance, however, people were quick to rally around the team and denounce the FAI for their wholly inadequate treatment of the players.

The FAI did little to get the public on their side, initially refusing to deal with the team through the Professional Football Association of Ireland (PFAI) and stating that they were “deeply disappointed” in the team’s “unprecedented ultimatum” to withdraw from the Slovakia fixture.

The following morning, the FAI’s Noel King appeared on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland and described the assertion that the women’s team were being treated like fifth-class citizens as “outrageous” and “completely wrong”.

He also referred to the team as “the girls,” which did little to engender faith that the FAI were taking the complaints seriously.

The team persisted, though, and the FAI reached an agreement with the players in the early hours of Thursday morning following lengthy negotiations.

It was a win for the team and, more broadly, a win for women’s sport.

If you can’t see the video, please click here

Female athletes are frequently dismissed as being of secondary importance to their male peers. They’re told that there’s little appetite for women’s sport. Praise often comes tagged with the caveat “for a girl”.

But the Irish women’s team recognised that they were being taken for granted and refused to let the FAI get away with it any longer. They banded together and didn’t back down.

What a sight it was, too. Fourteen international players of different stripes — amateur, professional, seasoned veterans, young up-and-comers — uniting to stand up for their rights and speak out publicly against a male-led organisation that had previously warned such action could “damage” their careers and reputations. One for all, all for one.

It was gutsy, it was courageous, it was momentous.

What they achieved can be regarded as a milestone for women’s sport in Ireland and a reminder of the need to value the commitment and sacrifices of the female athletes who represent Ireland on an international stage – and not just when they’re nominated for a Puskas Award or winning Olympic medals.

If we don’t, how can we ever expect women’s sport to thrive and prosper in Ireland?

The hope now is that such action will never have to be undertaken again and that the team can focus their efforts on what really matters — playing football.


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