Friday 23 February 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Alone they stood and conquered

Republic of Ireland women’s national team captain Emma Byrne (centre) with team-mates during a press conference at Liberty Hall. Photo: Cody Glenn/Sportsfile
Republic of Ireland women’s national team captain Emma Byrne (centre) with team-mates during a press conference at Liberty Hall. Photo: Cody Glenn/Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

Does it make any great difference to the story of the Irish women's football dispute that an agreement was reached with the FAI in the early hours of Thursday morning? I don't think so. It doesn't change the fact that the team members still felt they had to threaten the sporting equivalent of industrial action to secure basic concessions.

It does turn this into a story with a happy ending. The agreement with the FAI is confidential, which means we don't know how much was conceded. This is unfortunate for a couple of reasons. One, because an organisation which receives substantial amounts of public money like the FAI should be more transparent in its dealings. And two, because it enables any FAI officials so minded to go around whispering that this was a victory rather than a defeat for the Association.

But that won't wash. The women won. Because when they first made their grievances known the FAI had no intention of talking to them at all. Instead an email was shot off, warning the players: "We urge you to consider seriously, both individually and as a group, how your proposed actions could damage your club careers with club penalties for refusing to play international football, your international reputation as players and your responsibilities to the many young people who look up to you as role models."

I've seen this described as a "veiled threat". But there was barely any veil there at all. This was a threat pure and simple, and one of the more nauseating missives sent out in the name of Irish sport. The movie mafioso tone is great, isn't it? 'Nice career you've got there, be a shame if anything was to happen to it.' And the "role model" stuff is a doozy too given that women standing up for their rights are precisely the kind of role models Irish girls need. And respect. Twenty-two thousand women and girls play soccer in this country and I'd say almost every last one was on the side of the international players.

The women stood up against this crude attempt at what looks like bullying and enlisted the help of the PFAI to fight their case. This must have been a sore point with the FAI, who have always refused to let the PFAI represent the team. Why? Nobody has ever suggested that the PFAI is less than a reputable organisation. Employers who refuse to let their workers be represented by a trade union usually do it in order to maintain a position of maximum power and control. It means the stick rather than the carrot can be the mode of persuasion. It means you can send out nasty emails without fear of contradiction.

The decision of the women to appoint PFAI solicitor Stuart Gilhooly as their representative sent a powerful message that they were fed up of being fobbed off. His comment that "we need to recognise that the women's team are fifth class citizens, the dirt on the FAI's shoes", neatly encapsulated the whole affair.

Because the most striking thing about the players' demands was how modest they are. To have their own international tracksuits so they don't have to change in airport toilets and hand them back to be used by another team. Compensation for money lost by taking time off work. A €300 match fee. Access to a nutritionist. Strength and conditioning programmes. This was extraordinarily basic stuff.

One of the real jaw-droppers to emerge from the saga was that in 2010 the FAI decided to scrap a €30-a-day allowance which players used to get while on international duty. Imagine the mentality of the man who came up with that one. Did he ring the other officials to tell them about his brilliant idea? Did they congratulate him for thinking of this saving?

The meanness of the FAI in dealing with the women's team is striking. You'd imagine we were talking about an impoverished association rather than one which pays its CEO €360,000 a year. They may have made concessions in the end but the players had to threaten strike action to get what should have been theirs by right in the first place.

I don't want to turn this into a cheap John Delaney-bashing exercise. There was probably general agreement at the top of the FAI that this was the right way to deal with the women's team. That's why it took so much guts for the players to stand up in this fashion. It obviously wasn't a decision taken lightly. There was something heart-rending about team captain Emma Byrne's revelation that "it was very difficult the last few weeks, there were a lot of difficult phone calls. We had to keep reassuring each other that this was the right thing to do". In the end they went through with the action because "girls were considering giving up playing".

Forcing the players to the edge of the precipice like this is not something the FAI should be proud of. Neither is denying them the service of the PFAI. Byrne explained that the players didn't want to do their own negotiating. Why should they? Their male counterparts have agents to do this kind of thing for them. International footballers would prefer to concentrate on improving their game, particularly when in this case they also have to hold down jobs as well. The uneasiness of the players at being forced into the public eye was obvious at the press conference in Liberty Hall where their demands were made public.

They were, after all, standing up to an organisation where dissent is practically unknown. No matter what criticisms are levelled at the FAI, its AGM is a model of harmony, with encomia to the grace and goodness of Delaney tumbling forth at a rate of knots that would embarrass Kim Jong-Un. At matches stewards sally forth to remove banners containing criticism of the CEO. It's not easy to stand up to the FAI.

The players stood up. They had good reason to do so. The future should be bright for the Irish women's team. In 2010 an outstanding under 17 team reached the final of the European Championships and the quarter-finals of the World Cup, where only dodgy refereeing denied them victory over Japan, one of the world's strongest nations. Four years later Ireland reached the semi-finals of the European under 17 championships. At club level, Irish players have won European Cups and Premier League titles.

Yet there has been no breakthrough at senior international level. There had been hopes of reaching a play-off for a place in this year's European Championships; instead Ireland finished fourth out of five teams in the group stages. Perhaps, given the way the players have been treated, this isn't surprising. As Emma Byrne commented, while other countries were getting more serious and sophisticated in their approach, Ireland were at best standing still in theirs.

A few months ago Ireland appointed a new manager, Colin Bell, who won a Champions League with 1. FFC Frankfurt just two years ago. That's a hopeful sign for the future but so is the strength of character just shown by the players he'll be working with. Those who dismiss the women's team as not really mattering because it doesn't pull in the same crowds as the men's team are misguided. Almost 3,000 fans attended both of the first two home games of the European qualifying campaign, a figure which would have made any League of Ireland club very happy. My own feeling is that just one appearance by the senior team in a major tournament would lead to a huge increase in interest.

Thompson (pictured) was leading the event, one of the five majors in women’s golf, and playing the ninth hole of the final round when she was told that she had just been penalised four strokes. Photo: Getty
Thompson (pictured) was leading the event, one of the five majors in women’s golf, and playing the ninth hole of the final round when she was told that she had just been penalised four strokes. Photo: Getty

There is an increasing respect for women's sport in this country. The All-Ireland ladies football final between Cork and Dublin a couple of years back was the best-attended female sports event in Europe. And who would have believed a decade ago that the most admired sports star in the country would be a female boxer? One, incidentally, a former soccer international who was quick last week to express support for her former team-mates. Irish women's soccer has great potential, but even the best of teams need a level playing field.

It has been a great few days for not just women's football, not just women's sport, but sport in general in this country. We are all the winners when fair play triumphs. In a country where the concerns of women in sport can too often seem invisible, Emma Byrne and her cohorts made us see them.

They may have been inspired by the example of the US women's ice hockey team, who recently threatened to boycott the world championships over a dispute with their game's governing body. Those women won too. But there was one significant difference. The player unions of the NBA, MLB and the NFL all declared their support for the team. The men's hockey side were even prepared to boycott their own championships if replacements were brought in to replace the striking women.

The Irish women fought their battle alone. Not one member of the men's team saw fit to send so much as a tweet in support. Not one of them was man enough to do it.

Not good enough, lads.

If some saddo at home on his couch can swing a golf major then we truly are in the rough

This may be tempting fate given that there’s almost a full League of Ireland season left to run but I think the sporting injustice of the year has already happened. It will be very hard for anything to top what happened to Lexi Thompson last weekend at the ANA Inspiration golf tournament in California.

Thompson was leading the event, one of the five majors in women’s golf, and playing the ninth hole of the final round when she was told that she had just been penalised four strokes. A TV viewer had seen her replace the ball in the wrong place during the third round and phoned in to complain. The offence carried a two-shot penalty. And, here’s the kicker: this subsequently imposed penalty meant that Thompson had signed for a wrong score at the end of the third round. Hence another two shots.

Not surprisingly the 22-year-old Floridian, who’d had no warning about the penalty, was in tears. However, she managed to hole a 25-foot putt on the next hole for a birdie and played well enough for the rest of the round to force a play-off with South Korea’s Ryu-So Yeon, which she unfortunately lost.

It’s a ridiculous situation. The misplacing occurred as Thompson prepared to make a one-foot putt. The distance involved was one centimetre by some estimates, even less by others. Even the official charged with enforcing the penalty accepts the player didn’t gain any advantage. Leading PGA players are up in arms about it. Rickie Fowler was furious, as were Jimmy Walker and Justin Thomas, who perhaps captured the insanity of the situation best with his observation that “she deserved to win and just because someone is sitting at home, gets behind a computer and decides to send an email to this mysterious email address and can change an outcome is bizarre to me”.

This isn’t the first time some couch-based supergrass has changed the result of a major tournament. Last year, Sweden’s Anna Nordqvist lost a play-off for the US Women’s Open title when officials penalised her two shots after an email from a TV viewer. But the fact that Thompson’s penalty was imposed a day later and the trivial nature of the infringement should, if there is any justice, prompt the golfing authorities to scrap what is nothing other than a charter for snoops and sneaks.

We don’t know the motivation of the mystery phone caller. But he may well have had money on one of Thompson’s opponents or on Thompson to lose and been watching her every move very closely indeed. The championship officials didn’t spot anything amiss and chances are other players committed small infractions which, in the absence of a cyber-stalker, they got away with.

In the aftermath of the controversy Phil Mickelson’s comment that there are players on the men’s tour noted for a less-than-precise attitude towards the replacing of the ball was telling.

The current rule means that the outcome of major tournaments can rely on the whim of some saddo watching at home. It violates the principle of equal treatment before the law. As Fowler pointed out, “It’ll be only certain guys who are on camera. Certain guys are going to be under 24-hour surveillance while other guys are going to be out there and no-one ever sees what’s going on.”

So why is golf saddled with such a stupid rule? Perhaps because there are those within the sport who like to think it possesses a unique mystique, all that stuff about players calling their own violations and so on. They would regard the snitch on the couch as a hero, a knight errant ensuring the game’s sportsmanlike soul remains inviolate. This would be a popular viewpoint with those who go on about golf as if it’s some arcane martial art requiring ten years in a Tibetan monastery rather than a game hard-working people play at the weekends to relax.

Had sexism anything to do with Thompson’s penalty? Probably. Tiger Woods was seen breaking the rules by a TV viewer four years ago but escaped punishment. Then there was the humming and hawing at last year’s US Open over whether Dustin Johnson should be penalised for what was on the face of it a more obvious breach of the rules. A male golfer at the same stage of a major would almost certainly have been treated in a more sympathetic manner.

Anyway, enjoy the Masters. No sexism there, thanks be to God.

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