Women’s football is at an inflection point in the Republic of Ireland. With big sponsorship deals, an enthralling national league and players making names for themselves on the biggest stages, it is a highly exciting time for all involved.
As is always the case, the relationship between sponsors and a sport’s popularity is a bit of a vicious circle – without investment, it can remain invisible; but companies are more reluctant to invest when a sport is in its sapling phase. However, this year feels like a turning point in the trajectory of the game, both on a domestic and an international level.
First came SSE Airtricity who, in January, extended their sponsorship of the men’s domestic league to become the title sponsor for the women’s as well. This was followed up in August by the announcement that Evoke.ie was to be the inaugural dedicated sponsor of the FAI Women’s Cup.
Things have followed suit on the international front. It was announced that the women’s senior side would receive the same match fee as the men’s. Last month, Sky Ireland became the primary stand-alone partner in a huge four-year deal that will see them covered until after Euro 2025. And just yesterday, FAI Ireland announced a partnership with Cadburys that will support the game at the grassroots level, as well as bringing visibility to international players.
The way these deals have come together feels symbiotic. Many of Ireland’s senior players play in professional leagues overseas, and while the domestic game is not there yet, there is an understanding that that is where the journey begins in developing a successful international side: “We need to realise that the heart of football is here in Ireland. The Women’s National League is core in the development of the women’s national team, whether they leave or whether they stay. But here’s where it starts and here’s where they develop before they go pro. That is why our full attention is to help the clubs develop further and to work together with the coaches” [Vera Pauw]
The next task is for the Republic of Ireland to qualify for their first major tournament. Without doubt, that would catapult the game to further heights, as it has with their northern counterparts.
They came so close last time round as they sought to reach Euro 2022 and the disappointment in how that campaign ended lingers. They travelled to the Ukraine, needing a draw that would at least guarantee them a play-off spot, but departed with a 1-0 defeat and regret at missed opportunities.
Since that point, Pauw’s side suffered five straight losses. On the surface that looks poor, but it would be good to remember that they were generally narrow defeats against higher-ranked nations, the experience of which was invaluable. That run ended last month with the defeat of Australia, the Olympic semi-finalists, in an enthralling encounter in Tallaght. It was a performance that pumped confidence into Ireland’s veins, in particular their captain, Katie McCabe: “I’m absolutely confident in this squad and what we’re capable of. Obviously, we worked on certain things in the last camp and within that Australia game, and we got the positive result. So, for us, it’s about keeping that positivity going into this camp, and getting to work and to prepare as best we can.”
Another reason for the positivity is the apparent strength of the squad, many of whom are winning plaudits for their clubs. McCabe has made herself indispensable at Arsenal, showing versatility and character that has seen her develop into such an important figurehead for the national side: “The professionalism; the hunger for success; the leadership qualities – you cannot wish for anything better as a coach from your captain” [Vera Pauw]. Louise Quinn is standing out in Birmingham’s defence, alongside many of her national teammates, including Jamie Finn. Playing together week in, week out will surely only be beneficial on an international stage. And in the NWSL, Denise O’Sullivan has made a name for herself stateside as a diamond in North Carolina Courage’s midfield.
Thursday sees the start of a new campaign as Ireland seek to reach the 2023 FIFA World Cup and a bigger challenge couldn’t await this squad. They host high-flying Sweden back in Dublin, with a 4,000-strong army of fans behind them – they have sold out Tallaght Stadium and would have surely had more but for COVID restrictions. McCabe is meeting the challenge with anticipation rather than fear – “For us to start our campaign off now against Sweden is really exciting. They’re one of the top teams in the world. I watched them obviously over the course of the summer at the Olympics. And I play against the likes of Eriksson week in, week out. So, we know the quality they have but it’s for us to prepare ourselves as best we can for the upcoming games and see what we can get out of that.” Ireland will then travel to Helsinki for another tricky tie against Finland. Get points on the board this window, and that confidence will surely continue to grow over the campaign.