As we reflect on what was a historic four weeks of football during the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, which saw a record-breaking 1,977,800 fans fill the stadiums and a record number of spectators (with the final attracting a 202% increase in television viewership compared to any previous match in the tournament) we wish to recognise the rise of one of this year’s tournament newcomers.
The Republic of Ireland was one of eight countries to make their debut at the tournament. For a nation that is not considered a traditional powerhouse in football, their recent success is a reflection of the growth of women’s football worldwide and the increased competition between national women’s football teams. In 2021, the Irish women’s team was ranked 34 in the world but managed to achieve their highest ever ranking of 22 in March 2023.
An important element which makes this feat so remarkable is the fact that, when qualifying for the World Cup, Ireland did not enjoy the benefits of full-time football careers, unlike many of their competitors. Balancing work commitments alongside intense training and travel schedules is demanding and puts amateur teams at a significant disadvantage compared with their professional counterparts. See also our article on professionalism in women’s rugby which addresses this point in the context of another male-dominated sport.
In light of Ireland qualifying for the tournament in the latter half of 2022, the Football Association of Ireland announced that professional contracts would be introduced to women’s football in the Republic of Ireland for the first time, with full-time players representing the senior men’s and women’s national teams set to receive equal pay of at least £317 per week from 2023. In addition, the Republic of Ireland’s Minister for Sport, Catherine Martin, is actively negotiating a significant increase in funding for women’s sport in the country.
Women’s football has been played in Ireland since 1973 when the Ladies League of Ireland was established by the Women’s Football Association of Ireland. But it was not until this year that the League of Ireland (one of the two main governing bodies governing football in the Republic of Ireland) established the League of Ireland Women’s Premier Division. The league consists of eleven teams and the premiers will qualify for the first round of the UEFA Women’s Champions League in next season. The Women’s Premier Division is the first fully professional incarnation of a national women’s league in Ireland and the highest level of the Republic of Ireland football league system.
Despite coming fourth in the group stages of the tournament after losing to Australia and Canada and drawing with Nigeria, Ireland’s journey to date and increased investment in women’s football in Ireland is testament to the recent success of the women’s national team and suggests there is a bright future ahead for women’s football in the Republic of Ireland.