Analysis: Ireland must overcome Germany in their Euro 2022 qualifier next week to reach their first-ever major finals

Here's a brainteaser for any sports fans: name the English club side who won European football’s highest honour with three Irish legends in their matchday squad. "Easy," you’d say. "That was Liverpool’s European Cup win in 1984. Ronnie Whelan, Mark Lawrenson and Michael Robinson were the three Irish internationals in Rome that night."

You’re correct, but there’s a second answer too: Arsenal Women in 2007. Featuring three Irish stalwarts, Emma Byrne, Ciara Grant and Yvonne Tracy, the Gunners won every major honour up for grabs including the league, the FA Cup, the League Cup and the UEFA Women’s Champions League. Arsenal became the first English women’s side to win Europe’s highest honour after beating Swedish champions Umea IK and there’s a brilliant photo of the three Irish team-mates after full-time smiling together draped in a giant tricolour.

No Irish player in history had won the Women’s Champions League before, or has done since. Three Irish footballers achieving European glory together en route to a quadruple, it’s a truly unique achievement that often gets overlooked.

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From RTÉ 2fm's Game On, former Republic of Ireland striker and captain Olive O'Toole reflects on her successful career

Ahead of next Tuesday’s pivotal Euro qualifier at home to Germany, where Ireland aim to win to reach the play-offs, it’s timely to remember the journey of the Irish women’s international team, the stars who’ve worn the green jersey, and what it would mean to reach a major competition for the first time. Names like Byrne, Grant and Tracy, alongside others like record-goalscorer Olivia O'Toole, earned legendary status in women’s football on this island. Trailblazers who, regrettably, never got to play on the biggest stage at a major finals like the Euros or a World Cup. A golden generation of Irish stars missed out. There have been 12 editions of UEFA's Women’s Euros (the first took place in 1984) and eight FIFA Women’s World Cups (only starting in 1991). Despite valiant efforts, Ireland have yet to make their tournament debut.

Ireland’s men’s side famously got over the line by reaching Euro '88 under Jack Charlton. The impact of making the Euros for the first time that summer set Irish football on a new course. Unforgettable days at Italia '90 and USA '94 soon followed, plus more tournament appearances in 2002, 2012 and 2016. Houghton’s winner against England, Bonner’s penalty save against Romania, Brady’s header in France: these moments are etched into the brains of every Irish sports fan and represent some of the most joyous days in our country’s recent history.

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From the RTÉ Soccer podcast, an interview with Ireland and Liverpool's Niamh Fahey

There has been no shortage of incredible stars to wear the Irish shirt for the women’s national team too. Players who have won honours at the highest level, from across Europe, to the US, all the way to Australia. It’s a shame, therefore, that players like Byrne and O’Toole, plus current stalwarts like Niamh Fahey, Áine O'Gorman and Louise Quinn, haven’t experienced a major tournament during their careers.

Playing at World Cups and European Championships is always cited as the highlight of a player's career, whether it’s Paul McGrath, Mick McCarthy or Robbie Keane. This is especially true for Irish footballers, the vast majority of whom don’t get to win Premier Leagues or European Cups. For many, playing at an international competition in the green jersey is their childhood dream. "It would mean absolutely everything to me," Fahey said last month. "It would be the pinnacle of my career."

But to go back to Arsenal’s success in 2007 for a moment, it seems almost inconceivable that at a time when Ireland had three European Cup winners at their disposal, the national team never reached a major finals.

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From RTÉ Archives, Alasdair Jackson reports for RTÉ News on the Irish women's soccer team ahead of a game against the Netherlands in November 1987

That is, of course, until you account for the reckless treatment of women's football by the FAI for decades. Recent revelations have shown that, among other grievances like lack of basic equipment, players were forced to change in airport toilets and hand back tracksuits after meet-ups. The FAI’s indifference for years played a huge role in the senior women’s team not fulfilling its potential up to now. "The women’s team were like dirt on the FAI’s shoe," said one source.

With tentative steps like a first-ever chartered flight for last month’s qualifier in Ukraine and ongoing discussions around equal pay, the FAI say those dark days are a thing of the past. Equipped with proper funding, adequate facilities and a meaningful framework for women’s football in Ireland, you can’t help but wonder how much the team could have achieved in the 1990s and 2000s, when there were so many gifted players at top clubs.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland in April 2017, solicitor Stuart Gilhooley from the Professional Footballers Association of Ireland on the successful conclusion of mediation talks between the FAI and the women's national team

The closest Ireland have come was Euro 2009. Featuring future Olympic gold medalist Katie Taylor, Noel King’s squad reached the play-offs, only to fall short against Iceland with a crushing 3-0 defeat in Reykjavik. That was the first time Ireland had ever reached a play-off for either a Euros or a World Cup, doing so with a squad that also worked full-time jobs outside of football, or were at university. Ireland have not made the play-offs since.

That’s why on Tuesday at Tallaght Stadium, a new Ireland side led by Dutch coach Vera Pauw and assistant Eileen Gleeson are aiming to make their own piece of history. Standing in Ireland’s way are double World Cup winners Germany. After a crushing 1-0 loss in Kyiv, Ireland now must beat the Germans (or hope minnows Montenegro get a result against Ukraine) if they are to reach the play-offs for Euro 2022. It’s a last throw of the dice for the Girls in Green to qualify.

On paper, it's a monumental task. Since the turn of the century, Germany have won 70 of their 72 qualifiers. They have won the European Championships eight times from 12 attempts, claimed Olympic gold in 2016, and have been described as the best team in world football. An eternal optimist, Pauw recently sent her squad a video of Shane Long's unforgettable winner when Ireland beat the reigning world champions 1-0 in 2015. "Ireland have shown it is possible before," she said. "So why would we not be able to get a night like that for ourselves?"

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From RTÉ 2fm's Game On, interview with national team manager Vera Pauw

Led by a host of new stars like Katie McCabe and Denise O’Sullivan, Pauw’s team will need their own piece of magic on Tuesday. Beating Germany would guarantee at least a play-off position and, potentially, automatic qualification to Euro 2022 as one of the best runners-up. Overcoming a German side with stars like Marozsán, Däbritz and Leupolz would go down as one of the biggest shocks in women’s football and, undoubtedly, one of the greatest moments in modern Irish sport.

The impact that qualifying for Euro 2022 would have on women’s football in this country would be monumental, says captain McCabe. "It's about that little girl growing up," the Dubliner said. "To be achieving her dream of going to a major tournament and share that with all my teammates is something I would never forget."

Reaching Euro '88 under Charlton was its own seismic moment. It meant Ireland could finally dine at the top table of elite European football for the very first time. It forged a unique collective pride in the national team and inspired younger generations to follow in their footsteps. There has been no shortage of legendary pioneers who donned the green jersey for the Irish women's team in the past. But these were star players who, despite achieving a wealth of success at club level, never got their moment in the spotlight on the international stage. A moment their talent and dedication deserved.

Thanks to the excellent work of the 20x20 campaign to raise coverage of women's sport in Ireland, the Irish team has smashed records for attendances and TV viewing figures. They are heroes to many all across the country.

While many of Ireland’s trailblazers did not get to play on the international stage, it's important our current stars don't suffer the same fate. On Tuesday evening, they will continue to strive for their own "Euro '88 moment", so that a new generation can appreciate their talents and be inspired to follow in their footsteps.

Ireland’s Euro 2022 qualifier against Germany will be shown live on RTÉ 2 on Tuesday (kick-off 5pm)


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ