The underdog nature of Irish women’s hockey runs deep

At the time of writing this, the Irish women have just beaten Spain to progress to the final of the 2018 women’s hockey world cup. This is the first world cup final, in any sport, at the senior level, that Ireland have ever reached. Heading into this world cup Ireland were true underdogs, ranked 16th in the world out of a total thirty-five, meaning that they were the second-lowest ranked team in the tournament (Just ahead of Italy, who were 17th). Unlike the football world cup, only 16 teams entered the tournament and, despite being in a tough group that included host and (partially) Olympic champions England,  the Irish women topped their group to directly advance to the quarter final. This being the team’s first world cup since 2002, it’s fair to say that few thought Ireland could even progress beyond the groups, never mind coming first.

When a team qualifies for a major world tournament, as a spectator you make a few assumptions: a special kit with a premium sponsor is designed, the team are given suits/formal wear for the eventual return home, flights and accommodation are sorted for the players, coaching staff and their partners by the relevant sporting body, training camps and tactics are tested on the practice grounds and in friendly matches, finely tuning the team, and working out what players deserve the nod over others. And you’d be right…for most sports. Mainly men’s sports. Whenever the Irish soccer team qualify for a major tournament, they get tailored suits bearing the FAI crest; when the rugby boys inevitably qualify for a world cup, they don’t need to worry about where in Georgia they can get a proper hotel, that’s organised & paid for by the IRFU so as to not distract the players from the task at hand: bringing the gold back home. And too right – the players shouldn’t have to do any of this, neither I nor you would probably begrudge them that ‘luxury‘ when they slide the green shirt on, but this becomes a point of contention when there’s an open, clear divide between the treatment of the men’s teams and the women’s teams.

Last year the Irish women’s soccer team threatened strike action over inequalities imposed by the FAI, either by choice or ignorance. When the Irish women listed their demands to the media, the general response from journos and members of the public alike wasn’t the normal disdain a lot of Irish media have for strike action, but more of shock that these conditions hadn’t already been met – the senior women’s international team did not have gym memberships, strength & conditioning training or nutritional advice provided when selected for the national team, and (among others) sometimes had to share tracksuits when travelling or change in the hallway. And the same level of disregard was paid to this women’s hockey team who, for the most part, are amateur players (meaning that hockey isn’t their full-time job – a lot of them are full-time students), had to pay their own way to the tournament. This was a frustration shared by the women’s soccer team, and one that could’ve prevented Ireland from making it to the tournament at all, despite already qualifying. This was not a concern shared by Ireland’s opponents later today, or likely any other team at the tournament. This is certainly a symptom of the endemic issue of sexism in sport, but also the perpetual unpreparedness of Irish sport.

The Irish men’s soccer team first played in a major international tournament when they qualified for the 1988 European Championships in Germany. The boys in green narrowly missed out on qualification to the next round – an achievement that becomes much more impressive when you realise only eight nations played in the 1988 European Championship – having beaten England, drawn with the USSR and lost to eventual winners the Netherlands when an unlucky late goal fluttered past Packie Bonner. A member of the coaching staff told the crew of the documentary ‘Jack Charlton: The Irish Years‘ that senior members of the FAI were relieved when Ireland were knocked out, as they hadn’t budgeted for the team to progress passed the group stages, and any further successes might bankrupt the association. While the FAI generally aren’t the most competent sporting body, this lack of planning ability is something present across all facets of Irish sport. We have won Olympic medals and world titles not because of the government & our sporting bodies, but rather in spite of them.

There are signs of changing, certainly. The recently announced National Sports Policy 2018-2027 has promised to double overall spending on sport, including a rapid increase on spending on women’s sport – and if the government department & ministers ever needed a poster child for the plan (the first of its kind going back at least a decade), this Irish women’s hockey team is certainly it. Ireland’s Italia ’90 penalty win over Romania has been widely regarded as our greatest ever sporting moment – and we didn’t even win that tournament, we were knocked out in the very next round by the hosts, Italy. In fact, most lists that are published on the subject are dominated by Italia ’90. and Ray Houghton putting a ball in the English net in ’88, and Munster’s defeat of the undefeatable All Blacks in 1978. Not our Olympic medals, world titles or trophies, but noble defeats or come-from-behind, scrappy victories. We love an underdog in Ireland – we’ve even constructed a funding & development system whereby we are perpetually the bridesmaid, never the bride. But let’s hope today marks a turning point in Irish sport, where the underdog finally comes good, where they leave the Cinderella stories behind them and begin to assert themselves on the world stage…

Underdogs no more.

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