Lucy Quinn and Louise Quinn at training on Saturday Ryan Byrne/INPHO
Ireland v Nigeria

A World Cup win will increase the power of the legacy Ireland's women want to leave behind

The women’s national team have had concurrent aims at this year’s Fifa Women’s World Cup – to get out of Group B and to leave a legacy which inspires more girls to play football at all levels.

WHATEVER HAPPENS IN Brisbane later today, Ireland’s World Cup journey will come to an end. 

The first is always special but success will ultimately be measured on how quickly the nation gets to its second. 

So the toil for this team continues. To qualify for more tournaments. To grow the game. To convince doubters that the are worthy of their time and wider investment.  

Because female sportspeople are always multi-jobbing. 

Not only do they have to worry about personal performance, there’s always the nagging feeling that they need to be doing as much as possible to grow their game or sport at the same time. 

They need to be conscious and explicit about their impact on young girls who need as much encouragement and motivation to stay in sport. Just 7% of girls age 14-15 years currently meet recommended physical activity levels.

The women’s national team have had concurrent aims at this year’s Fifa Women’s World Cup – to get out of Group B and to leave a legacy which inspires more girls to play football at all levels. 

The first is now beyond them but the second, a lofty ambition, means that the work isn’t just about the 90-or-so minutes on the pitch. It’s also about their personas every time they are near a microphone, camera or their own smartphone. 

It’s being cognisant after a crushing 2-1 defeat against Canada that when journalists ask questions, they are thinking about those girls playing u12 club football. 

“Do it for the love of it,” captain Katie McCabe said, addressing those young footballers back home. “For myself and each and every player in my team, the reason we started playing football was because of the love we have for the game and the smile it brings to our faces, the people you meet along the way, the teammates you have, and creating special moments like this.

“This is our first ever major tournament and I know for a fact, given those performances we put in, it won’t be our last. I want young girls and young boys in Ireland to dream and look up to us, because it could be them one day sitting here, playing and representing their country.

“I’m so proud and honoured to be able to lead the team to our first ever major tournament.

For us, it was about creating history getting here but it’s also about leaving a legacy behind as well.

“We’ve given those girls and boys in Ireland the chance to dream and be like us one day. I hope we’ve done them proud, I hope we’ve done the nation proud.”

It will be easy, in the end, to assess the team’s achievements on the pitch – points accrued; goals scored or conceded; individual performances rated. Even before they take to the field against Nigeria, the pundits have identified the few strengths that have got us here and the multiple weaknesses that will stop us truly competing on the greatest stage. 

But what of that less quantifiable piece? The legacy. 

We can look to the eyeballs, for starters. 

Despite the less-than-ideal starting times for games, RTÉ confirmed record audiences for a female team sporting event. 

Ireland’s Group B encounters with Australia and Canada are now the top two live events of the year-to-date on RTÉ Player.

The Canada match saw an average of 550,600 television viewers watch the game on RTÉ2, equating to 68.9% share of viewers watching television, and 234,883 live streams on RTÉ Player. (For comparison, the average viewership for the qualifier against Scotland in October 2022 – which was played in the more TV-friendly evening time – was 345,000.)

While the momentum around female sports is undeniable, none of this was guaranteed and all of it inconceivable back in 2017 when the Irish squad had to threaten strike action to improve the paltry conditions they were playing under. 

Indeed, the World Cup cycle has been marred by teams having to fight their own federations for decent treatment – Canada, France, Spain, Nigeria to name a few. It has also been hampered by the fact that dozens of the top players in the sport are not at the competition due to ACL injuries.

We have known for years that ACL tears are more common in women – and in a nod to how there are still gaping schisms to be found between the men’s and women’s games – we haven’t figured out why; how to prevent them; or how to repair and rehab them back in time frames shorter than 10-12 months.  

ruesha-littlejohn-denise-osullivan-aine-ogorman-lucy-quinn-and-sinead-farrelly Ireland’s Ruesha Littlejohn, Denise O'Sullivan, Áine O'Gorman, Lucy Quinn and Sinead Farrelly during the national anthem in Perth Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

But what of the less quantifiables then?

Despite the result in Perth, many of the 17,000 supporters who were at the game and the players themselves honed in on two key moments: the national anthem and the Olimpico (when McCabe scored directly from a corner). 

Amhrán na bhFiann being roared by that number of fans in the intimate Rectangular Stadium had McCabe and goalkeeper Courtney Brosnan on the verge of giddiness in the lineup. 

Most of the crowd were Irish ex-pats, gathered to ease some homesickness and to have a rare Irish experience in their newfound home. 

The Reeling in the Years-worthy scenes provided those 80,922 Irish-born people living Down Under that opportunity. 

There was a moment in the opening game when the Fifa cameras panned to a young emigrant, bedecked in a retro jersey, who was mouthing the words, ‘I love you Mam’. 

In that three seconds, we were seeing the stories of youth emigration and the status of women’s football intertwine. 

“There is no chance we were missing it,” four young people in their 20s told me at Sydney Harbour. 

sydney Andrew, Kevin, Sarah and Kelly at Sydney Harbour on the opening day of the World Cup. The Journal The Journal

“It seems like half of Ireland are here. We’ve met so many people that we didn’t know were coming over – from home, from Perth,” said one of them, Sarah from Dublin. 

“My parents went to the World Cup for the men’s so it was really nice to be able to go to a World Cup myself,” added Kelly, a former Cabinteely FC player. 

This was not a lone endeavour by the Irish women. The entire theme of this World Cup – created by its organisers – was to unquestionably be the best one ever, while its aim was to grow the game. The slogan then is ‘Beyond Greatness’.

During the last Uber I took in Perth, close to the airport, the car passed a billboard adorned with a giant picture of Sam Kerr – Australia’s injured superstar – telling me this is all about tomorrow. 

The quality of the group games so far has confirmed the standards have been raised and that the public has noticed. 

This weekend, while watching England play Denmark in a Fifa fan zone in Perth, Sky News sent an alert to let its readers know that Ireland and the UK’s bid for the men’s Euros would go uncontested. 

I had to read it twice. Not because of the story but because Sky News had decided their audience would need to be told whether the football they were talking about was going to be played by men or women. 

In the same fan area, a Cork woman in her 40s told me how she had started playing football for the first time. A male coach said their club had just fielded their first ever girls’ underage team. Both facts connected to the exploits of this Irish team at this tournament.

There were the countless people of all ages and genders who told me that they were in Sydney and Perth to support either Ireland or women’s sport or both.

My reporting role in both cities was to document the impact of the Irish presence at the World Cup given the historic nature of the event. 

On returning home on Saturday with that job done, I was equally as intrigued about their impact on home soil. Immediately, a taxi man wanted to discuss the tournament. There was bunting adorning the streets around my house. At an (unrelated, non-football) party, many guests said their offices shut down for the few hours of both games, others said they’d never watched before but loved the tension of the games. There was universal praise for Katie McCabe.  

Talk aside, it’s still a results based business so today will have a bearing on the overall footprint of Ireland at this competition. Three points on the board will change the history books – and a possible (if not probable) first win in a World Cup stops this from being a complete dead rubber for Ireland. 

“We’ve got to work our ass off to get something out of it,” defender Louise Quinn told reporters in Brisbane on Saturday. 

“We can’t get out of the group but that doesn’t mean this game is any less important for us. It’s absolutely about pride. It’s about proving ourselves. It’s about bringing that kind of joy with us back and trying to make sure we do it for the people at home and, most importantly, ourselves.

“Because you can see from the games we’ve done well, we’ve competed, we’ve really held it to other teams but we’ve got to still prove it and put something on the board to show it.”

The first job – getting out of Group B – is still forefront in the minds of the elite players despite its impossibility. They know a World Cup win will increase the power of that legacy they wish to leave behind.

In the fullness of time, it will become clear how much they’ve achieved with or without that W. 

Ireland take on Nigeria today in their last Group B clash at 11am, Irish time. Emma Duffy is still in Australia reporting for The 42. Subscribe to The 42 here.

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