Saturday 23 March 2019

Katie Byrne: The world at their feet

Think of soccer and the kneejerk reaction is to associate it with men. In Ireland, anyway, the sport is synonymous with the male of the species. So it might surprise the majority of readers to discover that some 16,000 girls and women across the country play football, and the number is continuing to grow.

Locally, there are about 2,500 women and schoolgirls who play soccer in the greater Dublin area at present.

The Dublin Women's Soccer League (the amalgamation of the Leinster Ladies League and the Civil Service League) caters for more than 150 women's and schoolgirl teams.

Not only is football more popular with women than the masses might realise, but the achievements of the women at the forefront of the game go largely unnoticed. Irish women are making waves both nationally and internationally, often with little recognition.

The Republic of Ireland senior women's team, headed up by Sue Ronan (also head of the FAI Women's Unit) have jumped a place in the FIFA international ranking list to 27th position in the world, above Argentina and the highest-ever ranking in our history.

The Republic of Ireland Women's U17 squad was recently awarded the Special Merit Award at the FAI International Awards for their successful FIFA Women's World Cup campaign.

The pack reached the quarter-finals in Trinidad and Tobago last September, losing 2-1 to eventual finalists Japan. Add to this the scores of young women who have earned international sporting scholarships to universities across the US and other parts of Europe. Although she may be best known for her boxing abilities, Katie Taylor has played for the senior international team.

But it was only in 1973 that women's football in Ireland became properly structured with the formation of the Ladies Football Association, LFAI.

In 1990, the LFAI came under the auspices of the FAI and in 2000 the LFAI changed its name to the Women's Football Association of Ireland.

In 2006 a development programme was launched to increase female participation in the game. The ultimate goal is that girls and women will have access to a structured outlet, whether they are pursuing football for casual recreation or as a determined career choice.

Still, Ireland lags behind many countries -- the US and Nordic countries in particular -- in terms of facilities and funding.

General Secretary of the Women's League (and one-time women's manager), Mal O'Reilly attributes the lack of recognition to the lack of publicity given to it.

"It's not publicised enough," he explains. "There's just not enough coverage. Women's Gaelic Football is covered on TG4, whereas we are very seldom on the television."

Former senior international women's player Olivia O'Toole, who retired from international football in 2009, is one of Ireland's greatest champions of female football participation.

While she acknowledges the progressive work of the FAI (John Delaney in particular), she thinks it's a case of a lot done, a lot more to do.

"If I won the Lotto I'd buy a piece of land and make a girls-only academy," she says. "I want to give opportunities to girls who don't want to go back to school and who just love football."

O'Toole has blazed a trail throughout her career. She began playing at six years of age with the local under-14s team, Sheriff YC Football Club. Because she was the only girl on the team, she had her own dressing room at the homeground in Fairview.

"They treated me the same," she recalls. "I loved playing with them because the boys were on the same wavelength as me where playing football was concerned."

However, competing sides occasionally protested. "They'd say things like, 'I'm not tackling a girl'."

O'Toole was later at the centre of the ban on girls aged 14 and over playing on boys' teams. It wasn't until she was 16 that she found another outlet -- Drumcondra Football Club -- where she played on the senior girls' team.


She went on to become Ireland's record leading goalscorer at all levels within the FAI, surpassing the 50-goal mark in May 2007 by scoring against Italy in the Euro 2009 qualifier. (It took Robbie Keane until June 2011 to score 50 senior international goals.)

"I wanted to prove people wrong and show them that girls could play football," she adds.

O'Toole thinks female participation needs to start at grassroots level. She reminds us that boys can join structured leagues at a younger age than girls.

Change is on the way. Brother Bernard Twomey, who is one of the longest-serving people in the Women's Soccer League, adds that compared to 10 years ago, many Irish schools are forming female-only teams.

The standard of female football has risen as more facilities have been rolled out.

"Physicality wasn't an aspect in the early days; it depended more on skills. It's evened out now and they've toughened up!"

Likewise, the FAI's Women's Unit has organised incentives to pique interest at grassroots level.


Last Easter, nearly 1,500 girls attended the FAI grassroots initiative 'Aviva Soccer Sister Camps' in 59 locations nationwide. The initiative was aimed at girls aged seven to 12 and 2011 showed a sharp spike in attendance as well as the overall standard.

UEFA is trying to nurture the development of women's football, while FIFA estimates that soon more than 100 million girls and women will be playing soccer across the globe -- roughly equal to the number of men playing.

If Ireland is to stand up and be counted in international female soccer, equal opportunities need to be created for women, from facilities to funding.

More to the point, as O'Toole adds, the sport needs to reach at least a semi-professional level (our female counterparts in the UK have a professional division).

The women at the forefront of Irish soccer have bigger goals in mind.

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