Wednesday 8 February 2023 Dublin: 9°C
# Next Level
The importance of this Ireland team reaching a first-ever major tournament can't be stressed enough
Captain Katie McCabe’s class act before Germany clash shows how important encouragement and visibility is.

AS VERA PAUW’S Ireland face the might of Germany this afternoon, young, aspiring footballers from across the length and breadth of this country will be watching each and every move.

None more so than a young girl from Dublin, who will be glued to the television for the crucial European Championship qualifier [KO 1pm, live on RTÉ2].

katie-mccabe-signs-autographs-after-the-game Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Ireland captain Katie McCabe signing autographs for young fans. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

Two weeks ago today, five-year-old Peigí — daughter of RTÉ Sport broadcaster Evanne Ní Chuilinn — went to soccer academy after months and months of begging. Before leaving the house on the big day, she wanted to see pictures of Ireland captain Katie McCabe, with looking identical to her hero the goal.

Kitted out in Arsenal gear; McCabe 15 on the back of the shirt with the same high ponytail intact, Peigí took to the pitch, and no doubt, tried to replicate every move she had seen the 24-year-old winger make in Tallaght Stadium and on television. “That’s visibility,” as her mother wrote on Twitter at the time, sharing the story and a picture, to which the Irish skipper replied just minutes later.

And if that wasn’t enough to make Peigí’s month, on Thursday evening, McCabe went one further. Less than 48 hours out from what’s arguably the biggest game of her life, the Kilnamanagh native — probably full of nerves and excitement in equal measure — did something so, so special.

A pair of signed boots and a personal note telling Peigí to dream big greeted the young fan after school, and the smile on her face said it all. Absolute magic. Pure class. 

That’s what it’s all about.

While Peigí will be now watching her idol with even more inspiration and aspiration than before after the simple, but heartfelt, gesture, the Girls In Green will be hoping to encourage the younger generation purely through their football this afternoon.

Yes, we see them do it at every chance they get off the pitch, but the real key to bringing women’s football on these shores to the next level is for this team to make history and to qualify for a first-ever major tournament.

They’ve been within touching distance before. So close, but yet so far. But the overriding feeling is that the time is now for this group.

Ireland sit top of Group I, unbeaten in their qualifying campaign so far. Though yet to face the force that is Germany, “the best team in the world at this moment,” as Pauw has said on numerous occasions this week, the journey through this campaign has been a hugely promising one thus far.

On unstable footing after Colin Bell’s departure, Ireland were 2-0 winners over group minnows Montengro in their opener at Tallaght Stadium 12 months ago, before Dutch native Pauw took the reins from interim boss Tom O’Connor ahead of the visit of second seeds Ukraine.

vera-pauw-celebrates-with-katie-mccabe Ryan Byrne / INPHO McCabe and Pauw after Ireland's huge win over Ukraine. Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

A massive 3-2 win followed, and the scenes afterwards as players and young fans alike celebrated in pre-Covid jubilance said it all. After the highs of that night, the team were brought back down to earth as Greece earned a last-gasp draw in Athens.

Back on track after back-to-back wins over the Greeks and Montenegro just before the coronavirus lay-off, Ireland now face their toughest test yet in Essen.

They go head-to-head with Martina Voss-Tecklenburg’s group favourites — Germany sit one point behind Ireland, with a game in hand — who are ruthless in every way, scoring 31 goals in their four Euro 2022 qualifiers so far and conceding zero.

But, ‘To succeed, you must have the guts to fail,’ as Pauw says the team motto goes. Ireland are ranked 32nd in the world, Germany second, but that means nothing. Yes, they’re realistic, but they’ll do everything they can to meet their goal of reaching a major tournament.

They “won’t just park the bus” today, like they did to earn a famous 0-0 draw against European champions the Netherlands in Nijmegen in 2017. Pauw says her side need to learn from this game and bring those work-ons forward to the huge showdown against Ukraine next month. 

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Topping the group — for which one would have to topple Germany between Essen and Dublin in December to do — would ensure automatic qualification for the finals tournament in England, though play-offs is the more likely route to navigate.

Either way, this team reaching a first-ever major tournament is exactly what women’s football on these shores needs right now. With momentum, anything can happen. Incredible heights can be reached. Just look at the 2018 World Cup in London, and what it did for women’s hockey — or just hockey — in Ireland.

The same can happen football.

Even look at the knock-on effect of last summer’s Women’s World Cup, where each and every match shown live on RTÉ on TG4 despite Ireland’s absence. Imagine they had been there.

There’s no doubt that they will be, sooner rather than later. And Katie McCabe and this team will do everything in their power for that to happen.

For themselves, for the next generation, and for kids like Peigí.

Squad lists and more information about today’s game here.

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