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'It was this huge release last year. I’d be driving down the road and I’d start crying'

Former Ireland international Ciara McCormack reflects on a remarkable career.

Ciara McCormack pictured playing for Ireland in 2010.
Ciara McCormack pictured playing for Ireland in 2010.
Image: Donall Farmer/INPHO

THROUGHOUT HER football career, Ciara McCormack felt like an underdog.

Born in Vancouver, Canada to a father and mother originally from Athlone and Cork respectively, her tendency to question the status quo was evident from an early age.

She “threw a fit” when seeing her younger brother playing organised soccer, unhappy at being denied the chance to participate in this activity herself.

Soon, she was being coached on a team, with her dad as manager initially.

“I always joke that it’s because of my dad I spent the next 20 years trying to make up for the coaching that I got when I was younger,” she says. “Just because he didn’t know that much about soccer.

“My dad was definitely a big part of [my development] just from a support standpoint, when I was in elementary and high school for sure, but I have memories of him trying to teach us how to kick the ball like we were ballerinas.”

And growing up, McCormack was by no means a standout player or obvious future star.

“I was actually one of the last kids picked when I was in eighth grade. The entire year I spent on the bench.”

What she did have though was considerable self-motivation and the prospect of playing soccer at a good level in university drove her on.

Ultimately, McCormack achieved her goal, winning a scholarship to play at the prestigious Yale University. Yet still, her talent wasn’t exactly jumping out at that level. She remained positive, however, crediting her mum for inheriting a strong sense of perseverance.

“I started one game in university and [usually] didn’t play in games. It was very frustrating.

“My mum has MS [multiple sclerosis] and she’s had it since I was six. She’s just so gutsy and has a positive attitude. 

I was never a star player and just had to work for everything I got. My mum, for sure, her mentality was a huge part of how I just managed to hang in there as long as I did to continue climbing the ladder.

“I always say that ability to overcome adversity [is important], talent levels off at some point.”

Gradually, therefore, McCormack’s footballing fortunes began to change.

“I was not a technical player at all before I got to Yale and I got super technical. 

“A couple of girls on my team would come, but it was mostly me playing with the guys doing ball work and that really helped my game, but I still wasn’t getting a chance. I guess my Yale coach didn’t really rate me.”

Suddenly though, an opportunity arose at one of the top schools in the US, the University of Connecticut.

“After a game, my team-mates were telling me the coach was asking who ‘the girl with the skinny legs in the middle’ was, which was me.

“It was such a highlight for me, just to have this amazing coach pick me amongst all his players. We ended up winning the U20 nationals that summer in the US and I started and played every game as a centre-back. So it was an amazing affirmation after so many years of not getting any affirmation.”

noel-king McCormack linked up with the Irish team when Noel King was manager. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

*****

After playing and undertaking a master’s degree at the University of Connecticut, in 2002 McCormack ended up at the unlikely destination of Fortuna Hjørring in Denmark, after a coach in the US passed on her details to the club.

“I didn’t really bring many bags with me,” she recalls. “I hardly brought anything with me, because I didn’t want to be that loser who showed up and did not make the team and came home with five bags.”

The club was full of internationals, many of whom had represented Denmark at the 1999 World Cup.

“I was just this little scrub from North America,” she recalls. “My coach there gave me a chance and I played a lot that season. We ended up making it all the way to the Champions League final. 

“It was hilarious, too, because I had come from North American soccer and it’s so fitness-oriented. 

“We had a player who played for Denmark, she’s one of the best I’ve ever played with. She was a left-footed, technical midfielder. But I’ll never forget my first game in Denmark.

You know when you go out and inspect the field before a match? She was smoking a cigarette. And I almost got panicked. I was like: ‘Oh my God, she’s going to get in so much trouble.’ I’m looking around for the coach and am terrified for her. I always joke that she had swag before the term was even invented. She just did not give a shit and it was so disconcerting.

“It was so off the realms of my possibilities of thinking. I was just trying to keep it cool wondering what was going on. Then she was chain-smoking in the pre-game match. I was going to have a heart attack, but then I realised things were completely different in Denmark.”

At one point, a homesick McCormack wanted to return to Canada. Her dad convinced her to give it 30 days and she ended up staying. She didn’t speak the language and had no idea what was going on at team meetings, but worked hard, subsequently becoming fluent and adapting to life in Europe.

*****

In 2004, McCormack opted to return home. She dreamed of playing international football with Canada, and signing for Vancouver Whitecaps seemingly gave her the best opportunity of doing so.

She initially made good progress and appeared to be on the cusp on getting capped at senior level. But soon, her career would be changed forever.

Bob Birarda, a coach she had known since high school, was highly regarded in the Canadian set-up. He was head coach with the Whitecaps, as well as being head coach for the Canada U20 team and assistant coach for the senior side.

McCormack says that the more powerful Birarda became, the more dubious his comportment was. Increasingly, there were allegations of bullying and inappropriate behaviour against him. But, in many cases, players kept quiet, for fear of having their career prospects damaged — a concern that seemed justified when certain individuals who did complain appeared to be punished and even ostracised as a result.

the-canadian-press-2019-08-16 Vancouver Whitecaps President Bob Lenarduzzi. Source: DARRYL DYCK

McCormack expressed her concerns to club president Bob Lenarduzzi. The meeting was supposed to be confidential, but Lenarduzzi then relayed what was said to Birarda.

She ultimately left the club in 2007, signing for Ottawa Fury Women. The expected call-up to the Canada national team did not materialise.

In McCormack’s absence, Birarda’s behaviour — she was told — had gotten worse. Sexually charged comments and text message to various players became increasingly commonplace among many other instances of inappropriate conduct.

Suddenly, only weeks before he was due to coach at the 2008 U20 World Cup, Birarda left the Whitecaps and the national team. The statement simply said it was in the interest of both parties and did not elaborate any further.

By this stage, McCormack felt playing for Canada was no longer an option. She had an Irish passport, and after an approach from then-manager Noel King, opted to declare for the country of her parents’ birth. She had been contemplating quitting soccer before being offered the chance to come on a US tour with the Irish team — an experience that proved rejuvenating.

*****

McCormack was part of the Irish squad that faced a team that had just won Olympic gold, playing three exhibition matches: at the Giants Stadium in New Jersey, as well as fixtures in Philadelphia and Chicago.

She played 90 minutes in centre mid up against Carli Lloyd, one of the best players in the world at the time, and appeared regularly on the Irish panel over the next three years. Her Cork-based cousins would regularly leave work early, making the long trip up to Dublin, to watch her play.

As was later revealed in the infamous press conference at Liberty Hall, conditions within the Irish squad were far from ideal or professional during that era.

“I changed in bathrooms,” acknowledges McCormack.

Yet on the whole, compared to what she had endured in Canada, McCormack found the Irish camp a breath of fresh air by comparison.

Canada was so toxic that I actually was just really appreciative to be in an environment with coaches that I felt were good people. I guess I had a different perspective to other players from what I had been through prior to that.

“I played in Norway for three years, when we played Arsenal in the Champions League semi-final, we were changing in these portables. We could see the men’s parking lot with all the Rolls Royces and Bentleys. We’re in the Champions League semi-final in a little portable, squinting down underneath the windows, to not be seen, as we’re trying to change after practice. It’s almost like — this is the reality of being a female soccer player. 

“When I was in Norway, there were a couple of English girls on my team and we snuck on the train to practice every single day, because we couldn’t afford the train pass. That Beyonce song, ‘If I Were a Boy,’ we were the number one team in Norway for most of the season, and players were sneaking on the train just to get to practice.

“It’s not like we enjoyed it, or were okay with it. It was just the reality of it. I basically went through two clubs my last year in Norway, they both went bankrupt and I came home in dire straits financially. It’s the kind of thing where you have these stories that you’re telling until you die. You have these really extreme bonds with team-mates, because we all went through so much together, just to be able to play on the field.”

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sue-ronan Sue Ronan succeeded Noel King as Irish manager. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

After Sue Ronan replaced King as manager, McCormack was no longer an automatic pick for Ireland.

“I was 30 and at that point, I was just really burnt out from all the financial issues, and the stuff that had gone on in Canada,” she remembers. “I basically knew that if I wanted to have a chance with Sue again, it would be another battle and I’d have to stay in Europe.

“Because the clubs had gone bankrupt in Norway, I hadn’t gotten paid. So I went back to the US.

“I was really lost. It was a classic case of my identity being wrapped up in soccer. My whole life revolved around soccer. My social life was soccer and I really struggled for a long time.

“And also, the whole thing that had happened with Canada, I sort of [moved on] quickly from it.

I started a soccer club in Connecticut and it got successful. But I still felt I had this really weird relationship with the game. I had kind of gotten hurt by it and I knew it was time to move on, but I didn’t really know how to move on, so I really did struggle post career with what I was going to do next, or who was I outside of soccer.”

*****

In 2013, on a whim, McCormack decided to do her Uefa B coaching licence in Dublin. She was the only female on the course alongside around 40 guys, including a handful of footballers with Premier League experience. Though it felt “scary” initially, she quickly made friends with her male counterparts.

During a casual game of football on the course, McCormack was particularly impressed by her central defensive partner. She marvelled to colleagues at how good he was and was told the individual in question was renowned Crystal Palace and Australia defender, Mile Jedinak.

Having been inspired by being in the presence of such esteemed sporting company, McCormack decided to give her football career as a player one last go.

An acquaintance helped set up a try-out with Sydney FC in Australia. She flew there and slept on a friend’s couch in the build up.

She did enough to extend her stay, but the standard was high, with players of the calibre of Sam Kerr and Lisa De Vanna. As a result of a lack of game time, McCormack moved to Newcastle Jets, where she had more opportunities to play. Around this time, in 2014, she also earned a recall into the Irish squad, getting picked for the team to face the Basque Country. Shortly thereafter, however, McCormack suffered a broken foot that prompted her decision to retire.

fifa-world-cup-2018-france-vs-australia McCormack did her Uefa B coaching licence along with former Crystal Palace player Mile Jedinak among others. Source: DPA/PA Images

*****

While the game had provided her with a number of great memories, there was also a partial sense of relief once she stopped.

“It was always a struggle financially,” she says. “My body broke down a lot. Part of the lack of professionalism was not always having access to knowledge in terms of getting overtrained and also having student physios, or not having physios.

“I was always injured and I feel like my 20s was just stress all the time. It was like a palpable change, when I was done playing. ‘Wow, I have all this open space in my brain and I don’t even know what to do with it, because I’ve spent the last 15 years obsessing about starting or not starting, if I’m injured or not injured. How do I make money to be able to survive this month?’

“There was a certain amount of grit to play at that level. For some people, from conversations casually with friends that played at the highest level, I think there were a lot of people that were using soccer to cope with trauma. And I can speak for myself as well with this.

“When you’re going through something hard as a kid, or you’re in high school, some people go to the smoke pit, and smoke and drink. There are other kids that become overachievers.

I feel like I went the overachievement route and soccer was a part of that. And when your career ends, even though it’s not really real, that kind of validation of ‘oh you’re doing well, you’re making this team, you’re doing that’ [is gone].  

“First of all, you have to deal with the trauma you are running from. Then on top of it, you have to navigate: ‘Where do I go from here?’

“For me, it’s been years of a process, just trying to rightsize all of it. I’m lucky now — I’m in a really good headspace. But I was definitely in a really dark place for quite a while during my 30s at points.”

*****

In 2019, McCormack wrote a blog documenting her negative experiences with Birarda, Vancouver and Canada’s footballing authorities (you can read it in full here). It gained considerable traction and overwhelming support, while finally putting what she had experienced out there proved therapeutic.

“I had a really deep trauma from everything that happened with Canada, feeling like that passion [for football] got used as a weapon against me and some of my team-mates. You’re just so powerless to not-good people. 

“It was like a huge cloud lifted for me last year with everything that went on. Just as a person, getting to the bottom of myself in a way that maybe when you’re playing soccer 24:7 trying to survive in that world, you don’t really have the mental space to unpack your patterns and unpack your belief systems and unpack what your identity is and what matters to you. 

You’re starting to establish new things. It’s such a bubble and there’s this hierarchy of things that matter. It is a little bit disconcerting when you get into the real world and no one really gives a shit, they don’t care if you played on this team, or that team.

“Yet that’s been a measuring stick your whole life, which I don’t think is very healthy at all. It’s such a fake way to get validation. As a human being, it just doesn’t matter. But when you’re within it, it’s so hard to see outside of that bubble.

“To be honest, I’ve gone to a lot of therapy and just looked at the way that I’ve used soccer to mask other things going on with me and also using it as a coping mechanism for other things as well.

“Definitely the blog part of it last year lifted a huge weight and I realised again just to survive at that level, you have to be so mentally tough. You have to take a punch to the face, take a deep breath and carry on. And I hadn’t dealt with anything. Both with soccer and my life in general. It was this huge release last year. I’d be driving down the road and I’d start crying. It was almost a seeping wound got opened up and I didn’t realise how much was in there. 

“Even with the pandemic and how much everything has calmed down, when I think back on my soccer career, it was just constant stress and chaos. Slowly adjusting to just reflecting and teaching your nervous system to calm down, to be able to just sit quietly and not feel like you need to go to practice, or brace your ankle, you’re trying to un-train years of conditioning that you had to do just to survive.”

She continues: “I’ve noticed there are a lot of female players that have kids right after retiring and it’s just back to the chaos very quickly. I started a soccer club and with business stuff, that was how I continued my chaos, through work. In terms of that energy and that time, [there is] the need to be always doing something productive, you’ve always got to be doing something better.”

the-canadian-press-2019-03-24 Canadian soccer officials have largely kept quiet as regards the allegations. Source: DARRYL DYCK

McCormack is far from the only player to initially struggle to cope with life after retirement, and she feels there could be better support available to help ex-players.

“I had a good friend that was a national team player who was kind of homeless for a period of time. 

“There’s a lot of people, so to play at that level, you have to have such an insane drive. Maybe on some level, that comes from this pure place. They get a high of practicing and getting better. A lot of people are running from something and it’s a coping mechanism. I do think that plays a role as to why people are so depressed and bottom out after [sport]. If you had a bunch of alcoholics sitting around and one day there was no bar, they’d be struggling too.

“I think it would be amazing if there was more mental health [services]. Also, just transitioning from playing into what comes next, I could have used it for sure. I’m just a huge proponent of therapy, I think it’s so healthy. But unfortunately, mental health [services are] a luxury in our society, and definitely when you’re a female athlete, you don’t have the money to throw down to get a hand with whatever you might be coping with.”

*****

And as for Birarda? It later emerged he had continued coaching after departing the Whitecaps in 2008. As recently as last year, before McCormack published her blog, he was in charge of Coastal FC, an area not far from Vancouver, having previously worked at Tsawwassen, overseeing underage girls’ teams on both occasions.

He was suspended by the club,” McCormack says. “From everything that everybody knows now about what happened, it’s highly doubtful he’d get hired again. But technically, Canada Soccer hasn’t revoked his licence, or done anything. Because to be honest, if they do it now, then they’re going to retroactively be legally liable for it if he did anything in the last 12 years. So his club suspended him and that was it. I haven’t heard anything as to what his status and capacity besides that is.”

Nowadays, McCormack coaches kids in California, and very much emphasises fun over competitiveness.

She still gets emotional when recalling all the support she received, which helped restore her faith in sport.

“The Canadian soccer association fired [Birarda] for what they knew was inappropriate behaviour towards minors — some of them were minors.

“With the Whitecaps, they were forced to address it, because the fans started to walk out of games and stuff. But the Canadian Soccer Association never acknowledged it.

“It just exposed all the flaws in the system. And it’s not just a Canada Soccer issue, [it is] connected with people all round the world from all different countries, all different sports, different genders.

“It’s a real massive community of people I feel like I’m involved with now. And you just realise athletes are the vulnerable ones in the system.  

The one thing I am encouraged by in Canada is that I’ve been involved in calls where they’re basically putting together proposals both on reporting and investigating these sorts of situations. It’s a very comprehensive plan that is going to go to government and lobby to change laws and stuff, so I was involved within my province, within BC [British Columbia], but we’re hoping that that will possibly get taken across the country, and go into law, and government will have a hand in sort of making those things come to life. 

“I’m just so grateful that I had the chance to have the healing happen, when I’d experienced the dark side of people in sport for so long, to see the light side of these fans walking out of games [in protest at the club's response to abuse allegations]. There’s a 50:50 chance I’ll start crying if I talk about it. It was the most touching thing ever. It’s like getting bullied in the playground for years and then all of a sudden, your big brother shows up and starts kicking the shit out of [the bullies].

“These systems have evolved over such a long period of time and it will take a long time to change them, but there are lots of good people involved and I feel like things will change. It’s just going take a concerted effort and I definitely know now all the different components that need to change and have a really clear understanding about it. I’ll do my best to do my part moving forward.”

As our conversation draws to a close, McCormack reflects back to her mother’s side of the family from the tiny West Cork village of Drinagh, between the towns of Dunmanway and Skibbereen, and the strong influence she feels that background ultimately had on her.

“My mum grew up dirt poor with 10 brothers and sisters. And in the end, that part of my family is what I feel like represents me the best. They’ve all gone and done the most amazing things, but that fight and spirit, doing the right thing and standing up for people, when I think of Irish culture, my mum’s family is what I think about. I’m just proud to be from there and proud that I had a chance to play for Ireland.”

Originally published at 06.30

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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