October 11, 2022 will be the most important day in the history of the Irish Women’s Soccer Team. In the team’s past, they have never before come this close to qualification for any major tournament: a World Cup or European Championship. This game on the 11th, against Scotland, will be the end of a long and tumultuous World Cup qualification process for the Irish women that began over a year ago. The winners of this game have a chance to go to the 2023 Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. The losers are eliminated from contention.
This is an Irish team that has been clawing its way forward for a while now. While this is the first time they have made it to the playoffs for World Cup qualification, their road through the qualifiers this cycle has been impressive. It included their biggest-ever win (11-0 against Georgia), two wins against Finland, and a draw against Sweden, who are arguably one of the best teams in the world. Speaking of rankings, the Irish jumped to #26 in the FIFA Women’s World Rankings, up from #33 in 2018, during the last World Cup Qualifying Cycle.
It is exceptionally hard to qualify for major tournaments outside of Europe, since UEFA, the Union of European Football Associations, has some of the biggest names and hardest teams in women’s football. Six of the top-10 ranked women’s football teams are European nations. Eleven teams will qualify for the World Cup out of Europe, and fifty-one teams entered the qualifying process. The qualifying competition is quite convoluted, but as it pertains to Ireland, they were the runner-up of their group, which let them progress to the UEFA play-offs with a second-round bye. This means that their first and only play-off game is this game against Scotland, who are currently #23 in the Women’s World Ranking. They must win to have any chance to progress, but even if they do, there is a chance their record is not high enough. If this was the case, instead of qualifying directly, they will have to progress to an inter-confederation playoff, with nations from across the world, to be held in New Zealand in February. Only one team, out of a possible ten, will advance to the World Cup from this tournament.
With all of that context, it becomes apparent how difficult the road to qualification still is for the Irish. But the most important step is the must-win game against Scotland, a higher-ranked team. This is the most successful Irish women’s football team in history, but their hot-and-cold tendencies may still betray them. This is a trait they share with the Irish men’s football team- they seem to thrive on an underdog reputation. They may beat a very difficult opponent, but lose a match the next week that everyone expected them to win. Hopefully, this will bode well for the Scotland game, and the Irish team seem confident that they are in some of the best form of their life.
It’s always fun to root for the underdog, right? And this team is full of heart and spirit. In an interview after her goal to secure Ireland’s victory against Finland, the final chance in the group stage to grab back the second-place spot that landed them in this playoff, Lily Agg, a forward, said, “It was really hard out there. The girls worked so hard and everyone was giving it their absolute all. They deserve this so much, I’m so grateful to be part of it. What a night! It’s everyone’s dream [to get to a World Cup], we’re gonna do all we can to get there.”
So, once you tune in to watch Ireland vs Scotland, here’s some players you should be watching!
Katie McCabe, 26, is a star player for Arsenal in the Women’s Super League and has served as captain of this Irish side since she was 21. She was the youngest captain in the history of the women’s national team. She’s scored seven international goals as an outside back, all in this World Cup qualifying tournament. Watch for her stunning crosses and positional awareness on the wing.
Denise O’Sullivan, 28, is the only women’s national team player who plays in the United States’ NWSL, with the North Carolina Courage. She is the highest goalscorer on this current Irish team, with 19. Vera Pauw, the coach of Ireland, said about O’Sullivan: “There is no player in the world at this moment that is a playmaker but also the motor in winning the ball back. She has everything."
The player with the most appearances for Ireland is Áine O'Gorman, 33, with 111. She played for Ireland at both the U17 and U19 level. She plays on the wing. She retired from international football in 2018, but returned in 2020, and has been an important part of the Irish team since. You might see her on the sideline after a game with her wife and newborn child!
Heather Payne, 22, is the Irish team’s premier forward. She plays for Florida State, and just entered her senior year. She currently has one goal in 29 caps, and is arguably the fastest player on the Irish squad. She’s always very exciting to watch, as she can be running and creating space with seemingly fresh legs for an entire game. Also, she has much of her career ahead of her to develop into one of the best players in the country.
Finally, the regularly starting goalie, Courtney Brosnan, is 26. She’s American by birth, from New Jersey and attended Syracuse University in New York. She is eligible for the Irish team through her grandparents. She has recorded seven clean sheets in sixteen caps, and is beginning to come into her own as the starter in goal. Although she may make a mistake or two, she’s generally reliable and a good director of the backline.
The Ireland women’s team is a wonderful example of a lesser-known women’s football team who definitely deserve their flowers. Soccer is the third-most popular sport in Ireland, after cultural Irish sports such as Gaelic football and hurling. They might not be the most successful team, with the most star-studded roster or the largest budget in the world. But they have heart, and they’re easy to root for. The Scotland game tonight could be absolutely history-making for this team, and with a win, will secure their reputation as a serious player in the world of women’s football.
Come on you Girls in Green!
Tune in on October 11 at 3 p.m. EST, on RTE2 from Ireland or BBC Alba from the UK.