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Sam Boal
Women's World Cup 2023

Politics set (almost) entirely to one side as fans gather to celebrate Women's World Cup team

This group of players have brought something into being on this island that was not there before.

AT FIRST IT seemed as though Pauw might not take the stage with the players at all.

The Ireland manager first came to the stage alongside her backroom staff, danced a short but enthusiastic jig to Dropkick Murphy’s seminal anthem Shipping Up To Boston and then exited stage left.

Much of the crowd had been waiting almost an hour for Pauw and her team to arrive. The DJ blasted Born Slippy, Come With Me by Special D and Maniac 2000 and a jumbotron showed a tracking shot of a Garda motorcycle guiding the Ireland Women’s World Cup squad to their homecoming party outside the GPO. 

Either despite or because of these playlist choices, the atmosphere was electric. Fans were dancing, green flags filled the sky. Here in full force could be seen all of the young girls this team has inspired —  as well as so many more, the crowd a complete and comprehensive representation of modern Ireland.

After the players took the stage, Pauw did reappear, standing in front of her charges to make what was perhaps the most compelling speech of the night.

“The next tournament we go for medals,” she said to the delight of the crowd, which chanted her name as she returned to the stage. Nothing about her manner, nor the way in which the fans received her, suggested a manager under pressure. The drama that threatened to overshadow the evening receded.

The players gave no sign of disappointment, with team captain Katie McCabe saying the reaction she got from her hometown was “better than Perth,” where she scored Ireland’s first Women’s World Cup goal.

As a sportsperson, it is not easy to face disappointment on the world stage, compounded by a brain-bending round-the-world flight, and then be your best self for a crowd of admirers, let alone taking questions from the high-energy radio personality of Dave Moore (of Dermot and Dave). 

That was tonight’s challenge, and the players met it with the same good humour, wit and character that has so endeared them to the Irish public. 

Louise Quinn joked about her various injuries – including a black eye – dismissing them as simply “wanting to look hard”. Niamh Fahey laughed off a surprisingly tough question from Dave about her own prospective retirement, and Amber Barrett serenaded the fans with a rendition of The Wild Rover. 

In the first interview of the night, McCabe was clear that Australia-New Zealand was “just the beginning” for this group of players, and equally clear in what needed to happen next.

“Buy a ticket for us in the Aviva,” said McCabe, showing her savoir-faire when asked if she had a message for everyone gathered, referring to the women’s first ever game at the 52,000-seater next month, a Nation’s League clash against Northern Ireland.

Football homecoming 005 Sam Boal Sam Boal

While she did go on to thank the fans, she knows as well as anyone that the way to take this team forward is to take the energy inspired by a first World Cup appearance and turn it into something permanent. Impressing upon those gathered that the best way to do that is to make the team commercially viable was smart, especially as some elements of the future now hang in the balance. 

The FAI have announced that they will “undertake a full and comprehensive review of the campaign and tournament, as is our standard practice”. One suspects that at the end of this review will be a decision on whether Pauw remains in situ as manager. There’s that drama we spoke of.

In true ‘Ireland at a World Cup’ form, complications arose mere minutes after Ireland’s final game, with Pauw informing a press conference that captain McCabe had asked her to substitute Sinead Farrelly in the 70 minutes. “I am the coach, Katie is not the coach,” Pauw told reporters. McCabe seemed to respond by posting a zipper-face emoji to Twitter, indicating that she would be keeping her mouth shut on the matter.

On Thursday evening, McCabe and her teammates stayed true to that promise – taking full part in an event that is as much about the fans as it is about the players. A chance to see heroes, sing songs and feel part of something big.

The sporting cliché goes that a team owes it all to the fans. Though these players are far too gracious to say so, in this case, the fans owe it all to the team.  

Just six years ago, this team – including the likes of McCabe, Quinn, Fahey, Diane Caldwell, Aine O’Gorman and Ruesha Littlejohn – were taken to the brink of strike action by a lack of support from the FAI, forced to change in public toilets and share tracksuits with other squads.

Tonight, a crowd of 8,000 turned up on a rainy Thursday night in Dublin for the mere chance of getting to see these players. Kids on their parents shoulders waving incessantly at the line-up of players until they got a wave back, signs bearing slogans like “Katie McCabe – You’re my hero,” a man dressed as St Patrick. The works. 

Through sheer force of will and no shortage of footballing talent, this group of players (and their predecessors) have brought something into being on this island that was not there before.

Regardless of what happens next, these players have transformed football in Ireland. Judging by the crowd that came out to celebrate them tonight, there will be no turning back.

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