Thursday’s meeting with Finland will be the biggest match in the history of Irish women’s soccer. This is what the World Cup qualification campaign, Vera Pauw’s managerial reign and everything good that’s happened since the players’ strike has been leading up to.
Victory could begin the Irish sporting odyssey to end them all. But first things first. The task in Tallaght is simple. Beat Finland and Ireland are into the play-offs. A draw would keep us one point ahead of the visitors but Vera Pauw’s side would then need a win against a tough Slovakian team the following Tuesday to ensure a play-off spot.
It’s the kind of position Ireland would have dreamed about when the draw was made and the 2-1 victory in Helsinki has proved pivotal. That match didn’t just turn the group on its head, it propelled the two teams in opposite directions.
Ireland have grown in confidence since then, going on to draw with subsequent European Championship semi-finalists Sweden in Gothenburg. Two routs of Georgia indicated a new ruthlessness. The opposition might have been weak but the 20 goals Ireland amassed in two meetings contrasts with the nine scored by Thursday’s opposition.
Finland, on the other hand, are in freefall. Since that surprise October defeat they’ve won just one and lost eight of 11 games. Those losses came against tough opposition, Ireland would also have struggled against the German and Spanish teams which beat the Finns 3-0 and 4-1 in the European Championships. Manager Anna Signeul was subsequently sacked.
Finland are in decline. The three best Finnish players — goalkeeper Tinja-Riikka Korpela, defender Anna Westerlund and striker Linda Sallstrom — are well over 30 and the side has dropped down the world rankings since the competition began. Back then they were eight places ahead of Ireland, now they’re three behind.
The visitors shouldn’t be underestimated. Sallstrom still possesses enough know-how to add to her 51 international goals, while Spurs midfielder Eveliina Summanen and Portland Thorns defender Natalia Kuikka did well at the Euros.
There’s also the possibility of a new manager bounce, although caretaker boss Marko Saloranta’s previous stint in the job lasted just six games, four of them defeats, in 2017.
Ireland’s campaign has been driven by two world class players. Katie McCabe and Denise O’Sullivan are the Yin and Yang of the Irish side, Dublin versus Cork, the English top flight versus its American equivalent, outspokenness versus understatement, technical wizardry versus fearless athleticism (though O’Sullivan’s technique and McCabe’s fighting spirit are also considerable.)
The dozen goals they’ve bagged, seven for McCabe, five for O’Sullivan, sets them atop the group’s scoring charts. They embody Ireland’s new sense of belief.
Another magnificent duo, the centre-back pairing of Niamh Fahey and Louise Quinn, who total 200 caps between them, has been largely responsible for Ireland’s concession of just four goals in six games. There have also been significant contributions from the excellent Megan Connolly, who’s switched between defence and midfield with facility, and ’keeper Courtney Brosnan.
Ireland have never possessed such strength in depth thanks to a selection policy which has been both meticulous and courageous. The decision to start Shelbourne teenager Jessica Ziu wide on the right against Georgia was repaid by a spectacular performance from a player who’s since signed for Super League side West Ham United.
Bringing Chloe Mustaki out of the international wilderness to play against Sweden was another bold call which paid off. So was capping 17-year-old Shelbourne striker Abbie Larkin, who came off the bench to score in Gori. The acquisition of London City Lionesses midfielder Lily Agg, who made her debut in June, adds to Pauw’s options.
England’s European Championship victory should provide a substantial boost for the league in which almost all of our team play. But the feelgood factor would be quickly diminished should Finland spoil the party on Thursday.
The players will be aware of the danger, having snatched defeat from the jaws of victory before with the defeat by Ukraine which effectively cost them European Championship qualification. Hence McCabe’s impatience with well meaning suggestions that the Finland game should be moved to the Aviva. A packed Tallaght will be a far greater asset to Ireland than a half-empty Aviva. The ‘showcase’ this team wants is the greatest one of all, a World Cup final place.
A win on Thursday won’t guarantee that. For all the talk about Ireland being ‘on the verge of qualification’ it’s more a lay-by than a cliff edge in verge terms. Nine European teams will make October’s play-offs. Those with the best three records in the group stages will qualify for a final play-off where they’ll meet the winners of three one-off games involving the next six.
Ireland are currently ranked seventh best runners-up which means we’ll almost definitely have to play in the first round of play-offs. If we win there the most likely scenario is a play-off the following week against one of Switzerland, Iceland and probably Belgium who are still contesting Group F with Norway.
Should we win that second play-off things could get even more complicated. The winners with the two best group records will qualify automatically for the finals which begin in Australia and New Zealand next July. But the winner with the third best record, which is probably what Ireland would be, will face another set of play-offs.
These would take place in New Zealand in February and involve ten teams from all the competing federations. The use of world rankings should mean the European representative will be drawn in a three-team group and play the winners of a match between the other two to qualify. It’s a tall order but within the compass of a team whose 26th place in the world rankings is an all-time high.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, but while Thursday is the biggest game in Irish women’s soccer history, a lot of other biggest ever games might follow in its wake. It wouldn’t be a bad complaint.
A journey of a million miles may lie ahead for Ireland. They can begin it with a single step on Thursday in Tallaght. Get ready that night, they’re gonna make it a night to remember.
Irish iron man on course to reach the high his fine career deserves
Is there a more underrated Irish sports star than Zach Tuohy? A dozen years into his Australian Football League career the 32-year-old Portlaoise man continues to do the business. The regular season which finished last weekend was his third best stats wise, slightly behind last term’s stellar effort.
Tuohy was key as Geelong finished with the league’s best regular season record after winning 18 of their 22 games. They go into the play-offs as favourites to win a first Grand Final since 2011 and to give their Irish iron man the crowning moment his career deserves.
Also playing an important part was former Kerry minor star Mark O’Connor, whose value was recognised by a new two-year contract last month. Tuohy and O’Connor both played when Geelong lost the Grand Final to Richmond two years ago but are actually in much better form at the moment.
Geelong’s bid for glory begins next Saturday against Collingwood. Victory there will put them straight into the semi-final, defeat will still give them one more chance to make the last four. Tuohy’s team look well placed to reach the Grand Final on September 24.
F1’s dash for cash has little time for sport’s traditions
Modern sport’s preference for money over tradition is neatly summed up by the axing of the French Grand Prix. It may have been the oldest motor race in the world, but that means little to Formula 1. CEO Stefano Domenicali is upfront about the fact that at a time “where investments and the financial contribution are very important,” the historic races don’t pony up the same kind of money.
So out with France, which only returned in 2018 after a 10-year hiatus caused by its inability to meet Formula 1’s financial demands, and in with Las Vegas. With Qatar and China set for a return, two other famous races may be under threat.
The Belgian GP’s status as a fan favourite at the enormously entertaining Spa-Francorchamps circuit may not save it, while it’s even possible that Monaco could be on the way out.
Money is one problem for the old European races, but democracy might be another. Saudi Arabia, Azerbaijan, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Qatar and China’s presence on the calendar may indicate another characteristic of modern sport, the preference for dealing with autocracies where big cheques can be written with no questions asked by the local population.