England’s excellence in Euros shows what Ireland could achieve
It is not a bandwagon, or virtue signaling, or any other petty interpretation one may wish to apply.
A country has fallen in love with its women’s soccer team.
And the same fate could also be cast on this country.
The new Premier League season begins next Friday, and now, less than a week away, previews, predictions and transfer sagas are set to absorb most of the available attention in English sport.
Instead, something quite extraordinary happens.
England’s women’s team, the Lionesses, conquered a nation en route to the European Championships final.
They will face Germany in tomorrow’s final, with interest skyrocketing after last Tuesday’s euphoric 4-0 semi-final win over Sweden.
BBC viewership for the match peaked at 9.3 million, making it one of the most-watched shows of the year so far.
And that figure doesn’t include online numbers, nor does it count fans who watched in pubs or designated fan zones.
Winning draws support, sure, but there’s no remorse about the quality or perceived weaknesses of the women’s game compared to the men’s version.
It is simply an exciting sport, played at a consistently high level by a number of competing teams, finding a receptive audience.
RTÉ’s coverage of the Euros has also been exceptional, and the decision to broadcast was inspired by a sporting year devoid of a major summer attraction like a men’s Euro or World Cup, or the Olympics.
The World Championships in Athletics, contested on the west coast of the United States, was not a spectator sport for a European audience, while the GAA thrived in weekend slots, but midfield action of week provided by the Euros attracted people. Good commentary and analysis helps – but so does the impact Ireland’s own women’s team has had in recent years.
The popularity of Vera Pauw’s team has grown steadily thanks to great performances, but also to amazing courage and leadership from the coach and his players on serious societal and social issues. welfare.
Qualifying for the World Cup next year is approaching a turning point for Ireland. They sit second in Group A, one point ahead of Finland, who they beat away in a famous victory last October. The Finns travel to Tallaght Stadium on September 1 for a pivotal encounter; a draw will be enough to secure second place for Pauw’s team.
It would mean a guaranteed place in a dizzyingly complex play-off system that would involve a number of matches, but with the result that an Irish women’s side’s ambitions of reaching a first major tournament would be undiminished come autumn.
It will all depend on whether the Finns visit – and the Irish public recognizes the weight of that tie.
The announcement on Wednesday night that tickets for Tallaght Stadium had sold out within half an hour confirmed this.
It means a new guaranteed crowd record to attend an Irish women’s game, but it’s yet another example of what happens when a women’s team not only achieves success, but is also given the opportunity to excel.
This implies fair treatment by the FAI, to come after the shameful history under the association’s miserable old regime.
But it also requires the media engagement as well as recognition from within the sport that it needs to help sell its story.
And the exceptional leadership within the current women’s team is astute enough to understand that.
They want to share the story of their efforts to take the national team to the next level. This ambition is also reflected to varying degrees in the current euros.
England players may have a bigger platform and feature in a bigger market, but the domestic league still faces modest match attendance issues.
And throughout this competition, there has been a definite feeling that this is a group eager to let its employees know what it is, the depth of its ambition and the breadth of its talents. .
Coach Sarina Wiegman’s comments from the Netherlands after the semi-final were telling in this regard.
“We said it before the tournament and we say it again every time: that we want to inspire the nation. I think that’s what we do and we want to make a difference, and we hope that everyone will be so excited and proud of us and that even more girls and boys will start playing football.
Wiegman, a compatriot from Pauw, is, like the Irish coach, a figure with decidedly Dutch characteristics, one of which speaks candidly.
She led the Netherlands to victory at Euro 2017, and they were runners-up at the World Cup two years later.
But when she got the job in the Netherlands, she was uncompromising from the start. At an early meeting, she distributed copies of an article that listed what people had to give up to be successful; one was the need to be loved.
This demand for determination is part of the transformation of England and makes Wiegman a national figure in England.
“I think being Dutch she cuts to the chase,” one of England’s star Lucy Bronze said of her manager ahead of tomorrow’s final.
“She tries not to get carried away. I think it’s quite funny that almost everyone in all of Holland has said that they have never seen Sarina Wiegman jump like she did after the game against Spain (the quarter-final of the England, won in extra time after being under enormous pressure for much of normal time).
“In a Euros house there is a lot of emotion and a lot of support, we don’t want to get carried away too much, and she is one of those people who is very process-oriented. She is very excited, but once the game is over, we move on to the next game.
This also echoes Pauw’s approach, where progress is celebrated but as a stepping stone.
Ireland can only dream of a place in the final of a major championship, but getting there is becoming a more achievable goal.
And watching the action over the past fortnight in England, and particularly as interest has grown over the past week, it triggers some tantalizing thoughts of what next summer might look like in this country.
The World Cup will take place in Australia and New Zealand, from July 20 to August 20.
The jet lag will be difficult, but if an Irish team can pull it off, a boon in viewing figures is guaranteed, no matter what time the matches kick off that day or night.
We have an idea, from a distance, of how an unannounced team can fuel the passions of a country. Why can’t Ireland do it too?