They call it the ‘Golden Circle’ in Iceland. It’s probably one of the most memorable sightseeing trips in the world.
Sadly, the Covid-constricted Ireland women’s international soccer side haven’t been able to enjoy as much of the stunning vistas as they may have liked.
Instead, they are trapped in a circle of their own making; swirling somewhere between the virtuous and the vicious cycle of a side invested with the vaulting ambition to shake off their tag as a mid-ranking, mediocre outfit.
As the months count down to their latest attempt to qualify for a maiden major tournament, Vera Pauw’s side have sought to accelerate the process of bettering themselves by seeking as much exposure as possible to sides that are already better than themselves.
The trouble is that the process can teeter on the thin line between occasional encouragement offered by performances against the potential for enervation given an obvious lack of results.
While this international window may not have much relevance to an Irish sporting public enraptured by events elsewhere – hats off to FIFA on that one – Pauw is confident that her side can eventually acquired the gains from so much pain.
Six successive defeats – albeit to teams who are all ranked much higher than Ireland in a sport where the depth is not nearly as profound as in the men’s game – might have tempted some of the smart folk in Abbotstown to give Andorra another call, at least to engender some confidence in a group who haven’t won a match since March 2020.
“We could have chosen a game we could win but that would not teach us anything,” Pauw strongly demurs.
“What is confidence? Being sure of your task and executing and growing and you will not get that against lesser opponents.
“We do appreciate people see six games in row we have lost but we have seen the growth and the country can see that. Everybody now wants a result, so do we.
“We need to qualify for a tournament. But we also need to prepare. We only have a few moments. FIFA have already taken friendly slots out, the best countries will have their tournaments but there is not enough games for countries like us to close the gap.”
Time is running out for Pauw’s side though; even though they open their World Cup qualifying against acknowledged weaklings Georgia, the subsequent tests against Sweden and Finland more accurately resemble the levels of opposition they have encountered in their recent friendlies.
The problem is that, even though they claim to be growing their game all the time, the results, and recidivist lapses in front of their own goal and the opposition’s, hardly engender confidence that they are getting any closer to bridging the gulf.
Last week’s first leg of this friendly double-header against the Icelandic women was a case in point: three first-half concessions compounded by a lack of clinical edge, resulting in a 3-2 defeat which flattered the visitors.
It was an all-too-familiar story.
“We have to set something right,” says Pauw, likely to make changes in midfield, at the very least, given their poor ball retention last Friday.
“It wasn’t a bad result, 3-2. They are ranked in between Denmark and Belgium. Compared to those games, we are very disappointed because we did not start well.
“Iceland’s league are still playing, we had players with leagues finished and travelling from the US. They are not excuses because you have to plan to be at your best.
“What that means is that actually happens inside of you. So we have really addressed that and it helps us to make a step forward.”
Iceland v Republic of Ireland, Live, RTÉ Player, 6.0