Kicked, pinched, heavy handed. It was not a normal day in Brisbane.
They were the dark arts in action.
People think that games behind closed doors are relaxed. Well, not always.
It took Vera Pauw 15 minutes to realize this. The referee’s whistle blew to start the unofficial match against Colombia last Friday. And it did not stop sounding like foul after foul was committed.
Players can be cowards. As long as they know there will be no penalties for bad behavior, they act tough. That was what happened between the women’s team of Ireland and Colombia.
The Irish players came under fire; Denise O’Sullivan, one of our best players, ended up in the hospital, her World Cup was almost over. It was then that Vera acted.
Every move he made on Friday was decisive, first in realizing he needed to leave the game, then in having the intelligence to call FAI chief executive Jonathan Hill for his approval to do so; then take their women off the field.
When that happened, Colombian player Daniella Caracas was heard saying the Irish team was welcome to “eat shit” after dismissively calling them “little girls.”
Under this kind of provocation, Pauw had to show strong leadership. He had to protect the players from him. Her safety comes first and she would have felt, after a lifetime working on the game, when things weren’t right.
That can happen when the games are not official. Players know that they can push the limits. Look, I’ve been on the receiving end myself as a manager.
Once, in pre-season, we were in Alicante with Shamrock Rovers. A friendly with a local team was arranged, a Leinster Senior League standard.
The club officials could not have been more accommodating. A quick meal was arranged for afterwards; a few hundred locals came to watch the game.
As a club, the Rovers may not be Real Madrid, but they have a status, a fame that stretches as far as Alicante.
But the problem was that a few heroes who had something to do wanted to be tough men.
First entry. Pop. One of our players went down with a sore ankle.
Five minutes later there was another late challenge.
So it was.
Like Vera on Friday, I quickly realized that I had a big decision to make.
Except my homework was easy. In an era before social media was a big thing, I didn’t have to think twice about one of my decisions making a headline. It was a case of simply protecting my players, not my reputation.
The Spanish players called me a coward when I took the team out.
The club’s managers were devastated. His big post-match job was going to be a wet squib.
But I did not care.
My concern was the safety of the players.
They got out, game over.
So when Vera made that decision on Friday, after O’Sullivan’s shin injury, she must have known the furor that would follow.
But she did the right thing. The World Cup starts on Thursday. You can’t risk losing one of your players this close to the tournament.
She had to think about her personal safety first, but she also had to think about her dreams.
They have housed them since they first kicked a ball around. Every member of that team wanted this, the chance to play on the biggest stage, the chance to make a name for themselves.
On Thursday, their World Cup kicks off in Sydney in a stadium that will seat 82,500 people. Vera would have seen those Colombian tackles fly and feared the danger of their tournament ending in a place called Meakin Park, a run-of-the-mill field that can hold a couple of thousand people.
So, she put her players first.
She did the right thing.
And they will pay you for it.
Deep in the minds of those players, they will think about Vera’s decision and each will have an internal conversation.
They’ll realize how much the coach cares about them, how she was prepared to lose face, and a 90-minute warm-up to protect their sleep.
That kind of thing earns respect within a team.
On Thursday they will play not only for her but for their country and they may be too young to realize it, but they will inspire the next generation of boys and girls, when they do.
This World Cup will unite the Irish. They will see the crowds, the packed stadiums, the brilliance of soccer, and they will develop a bond with this team. Respect will increase. It’s already there, but there will be more.
In the communities of Ireland, where the players hail from, there will be immeasurable pride, a knowledge that one of their own has made it out of that small town or farm and established themselves on the world stage.
People who tune in will be caught up in the excitement.
Names like Katie McCabe and Denise O’Sullivan will be known in every home.
When we score our first goal, you’ll hear roars from your neighbor’s.
We will all get together. Vera’s team will become our team. We are lucky to have the Dutch as a coach. Intelligent, decisive, empathetic, tactically astute, strong: a nation owes its debt.
We are at the beginning of something magical with women’s football. So get on board.