This is a story about the World Cup. It is also a story about my wife.
When myself and Leanne met, I didn’t work in sport – but I watched it on TV non-stop, supported it any chance I’d get, and played it a lot. About a fortnight after our first date, I was playing in a county championship final. She came to support us. We lost. I was like a demon for days afterwards. Soon after that, Dublin won their first All Ireland in 16 years. I spontaneously cried for days afterwards. She saw very early on how much sport means to me. She jokes now that I told her at the time “sport isn’t everything, though…”
But sport IS everything, to me. It has been since I was a kid. Football was my first love. I was obsessed with the Irish team that took on the world in USA ‘94, and the Manchester United squad at the peak of their mid-90s power. I played football all day every day with the boys on my road, the only girl in the thick of it. All of my pocket money was spent on Premier League stickers; that thrill of opening a fresh packet, especially if it held a rare shiny within. Magazines like ‘Shoot’ and ‘Match’ were pored over for stats and facts, before being cut up and stuck on my walls. Major tournament wall-charts were the holy grail, completed with careful attention to detail – and it didn’t matter if Ireland weren’t competing. I’d take note of scores off TeleText, and draw my own league tables in a copybook. Any match coverage that was on TV, I’d record on VHS and watch over and over for weeks. When Santa brought me my first jersey, I saved up to hit the Manchester United Superstore in Arnotts over the Christmas holidays to have ‘KANCHELSKIS 14’ printed on the back of it. At £1 a letter and £4.50 a number, it was an extravagance. He signed for Everton mere months later. I’ve never gotten over the shock of it. One of the best days of my life was when Mam & Dad brought me on a day trip to Old Trafford as a special treat. I’ll never forget it. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t seeing any women in all of this. In my little world, it was men who played football – and I loved football.
Leanne doesn’t have any of these fond football memories from her childhood. She didn’t really care for the sport when she was a kid. But she also wasn’t encouraged to care about it by society. She was the girl that the attitude to physical education in Irish schools so often overlooked. Outside of the classroom, football was for the boys – bar the odd girl who they might deem worthy of their lofty playground standards… but how do they know you can’t play, if they’ve never you given the proper chance to try? She didn’t play football outside of school, either. Nor did she see any women playing football when she turned on her TV. As far as she was concerned, in her little world, the sport just wasn’t for her.
A few months back, a group of our friends were organising a trip to France for the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup. An early-bird ticket bundle offered both semi-finals and the final for a nice price – and with all three decisive games taking place in Lyon, it made for handy group flight and accommodation options. I opted out, knowing the RTÉ had acquired the broadcast rights to the tournament and that I’d be working on it for the month solid. Leanne opted in. She’d never been on a ‘sports holiday’ (which I maintain are the BEST kind of holiday…) and it seemed like the perfect opportunity to try one.
With the golden tickets booked and travel plans made, the real preparation then began. Almost overnight, Leanne became a football fanatic. Getting to know the teams who had qualified for the tournament, watching club clashes and warm-up international friendlies to suss out key players, researching which official jerseys to invest in. As the World Cup countdown began, preview features were studied in detail, a wall-chart procured, and an in-depth prediction bracket made. She speculated in detail about the ones-to-watch, the decisive games to look forward to in the group stages, and the potential match-ups in the latter stages. The incredible human stories of competitors that emerged in the process added another layer of intrigue. On the opening night of the World Cup, she and her friends gathered to watch on a big screen as France put on a footballing exhibition in a sold-out Parisienne stadium. They spent the rest of the opening weekend watching back-to-back matches in the pub, feasting on football.
For the first time ever, the FIFA Women’s World Cup has been on Irish TV screens in its entirety, allowing viewers to be part of the entire journey. The fact that it’s been in France, meaning minimal time difference and prime-time match slots, has made it all the more special. I’ve been so lucky to have had one of the best seats going, working on RTÉ Sport’s coverage as a Programme Editor alongside an incredible team of presenters, analysts and commentators, who I have learned so much from. But I’m also lucky to have seen first-hand the positive effect that the event being on TV has had.
For the past month, every night I’ve come home from work Leanne has had thoughts to share on the matches she’s watched, the standout players she’s seen, the tactical analysis she’s listened to, and the reactions she’s read online. Every morning when we‘ve gotten up, it’s been football podcasts for breakfast. We had both predicted Netherlands would go the distance on the weaker side of the draw, against either England or USA. I missed her this past week, to talk about those decisive moments of the business-end of the tournament – but the snaps sent from Stade de Lyon are priceless. She has had the time of her LIFE.
This is not just a one-tournament thing, either. The dates for Ireland’s UEFA EURO 2021 qualifiers are already in the diary. She and the gang who’ve traveled to France for the World Cup will be there in Tallaght Stadium this autumn to cheer on the Girls in Green, as they begin a new quest to qualify for a first ever major tournament. They know now all too well the standard of European football, and what Ireland are up against. They’ll be there for the journey as opposed to just the destination… and there’s already talk of organising a trip to the European Championships in 2021 to cheer them on, if they make it.
The 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup has garnered attention for all the right reasons. It’s been a game-changer, a record-breaker, a myth-buster, and a history maker. It’s been a 30 day feast of football, an exhibition of elite athleticism, throughout which the players were fighting for so much more than the trophy. It’s been inspiring and intriguing, and has instigated important discourse that will carry on beyond the tournament.
But mainly – it’s been SEEN. It’s been seen by girls who play the game and now know that there’s a pathway for them to be a professional footballer. It’s been seen by girls who love to talk about football and who now know that when they grow up they can do so as a presenter, an analyst, commentator, or a reporter. It’s been seen by boys who love football and don’t care who’s playing it so long as they can watch it. Its been seen by men who’ve tuned in and become instantly hooked on what has been top-quality tournament football. It’s been seen by cynics who have wrongly mis-judged the women’s game in the past with jaded clichés. It’s been seen by Irish football fans who’ll now support their women’s national team in future, in the hope they can make it to the promised land.
Above all else – it’s been seen by women. Women who never got to see it as girls, who didn’t think football was for them; women who formerly played at the highest level, but remained in the shadows throughout their careers; women who’ve followed the game for years, craving this level of in-depth analysis and commentary on the game they love; women who quite simply respect other women breaking down barriers to go to work and show the world what they’re capable of. My wife’s World Cup Story is just one of many women’s World Cup stories.
With the 20×20 campaign, we are striving for ‘cultural change’ in attitudes to sportswomen. The reception that this World Cup has gotten is what cultural change looks like. If she can’t see it, she can’t be it… well, now ‘she’ has seen it, for a whole month, in prime time slots, with hi-motion replays, in glorious HD. To quote the great Alex Morgan: “THAT’S THE TEA”.