Ireland Is Ready To Keep Singing At Their First World Cup
2:42 PM EDT on June 28, 2023
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Maybe I'm just an idiot, but I'm always surprised to be reminded of just how long it's been since we've seen an Irish national team at the World Cup. The men's team hasn't qualified since 2002, and until this year the women's team had never qualified in its 50-year history. This dry spell has less to do with Ireland's failure to produce talent—it's no breeding ground for superstars, but plenty of competent players have come from the Emerald Isle—than it does the punishing qualification process that UEFA teams have to go through. Making the World Cup is no small feat for any nation, but it's especially difficult for countries that have to spend every qualification cycle duking it out with the best Europe has to offer.
So if anyone was excited to hear about the World Cup's expansion from 24 teams in 2019 to 32 teams in 2023, it was Ireland. UEFA's tournament allotment was bumped from eight to 11, the last of which could be claimed through a playoff between the nine runners up from the initial qualification groups. Ireland made it to the playoff bracket, and on October 11, 2022, they faced Scotland in Glasgow with a trip to the World Cup on the line. Thanks to a first-half penalty save by Courtney Brosnan and a second-half goal from substitute striker Amber Barrett, Ireland booked its trip to New Zealand and Australia.
How much they'll actually enjoy their time in the southern hemisphere remains to be seen. Ireland is in a tough group that includes both Canada and host nation Australia, which means they are probably going to get their asses kicked a little bit. But hey, that's the nice thing about appearing in your first-ever World Cup: just being there is such a thrill that even getting your ass kicked is kind of fun.
Who Is Their Star?
One of the best things about a team like Ireland making the World Cup for the first time is the opportunity it presents for genuinely great players who have yet to shine on the sport's biggest stage. This is the category that Denise O'Sullivan falls into.
O'Sullivan, now 29 years old, has long been more or less a perfect holding midfielder. She broke into the NWSL in 2016 as a 21-year-old, and has since created quite a career for herself in America. She won two championships with the North Carolina Courage, and was voted as the team's most valuable player in 2018 and 2019. Her contributions don't often manifest themselves in goals or assists—she has four goals and 12 assists in 136 NWSL league matches—but rather in her ability to influence and orchestrate the game.
O'Sullivan is one of those players around whom everything orbits. This influence begins with her constant availability—she always starts and she always plays 90 minutes—and it continues through the application of her skillset, which includes everything you could want from a player working in the pivot. O'Sullivan tackles, wins the ball, and breaks up play like a classically rugged defensive midfielder, and then when she gets the ball she becomes one of the most prolific and accurate passers in the world. She doesn't do this just by knocking around simple three- and six-yard passes in her own half, either. O'Sullivan is a bold and progressive passer, always looking to pull a string from her holding position to initiate an attacking move. Those attacks will often end with some other combination of players bagging a goal and an assist, but it was O'Sullivan who made it all possible. A quintessential O'Sullivan pass is the one she used to set Barrett loose in that 1-0 playoff win over Scotland:
Don't let O'Sullivan's low scoring numbers fool you, though. She's still a great ball striker, and when it sits up nicely for her she can bang that fucker into the back of the net. She went on a little scoring burst during Ireland's most recent qualification cycle, scoring six goals in nine games, and last year she scored this beauty for the Courage:
Please note that it was also O'Sullivan who made the perfectly weighted pass into the channel that started that move. That's everything she can do on the field, packed into a few seconds of beautiful soccer.
Tell Me About A Cool Youngster
A month ago, I probably wouldn't have picked Abbie Larkin as a player likely to make Ireland's World Cup quad, much less play a meaningful role in it. The 18-year-old forward has made just seven appearances with the senior national team, scoring one goal in 337 minutes of game time. But when manager Vera Pauw revealed her final 23-person team on Wednesday morning, there was Larkin's name on the squad list. And given the way things have shaken out, Larkin might just be one of Pauw's best options.
One thing this Ireland team does not have in it is a lot of goals. Larkin is one of just four forwards that Pauw is bringing to the World Cup, and they have combined to score 10 total goals for the national team. Amber Barrett is the most accomplished of the group, with 36 caps and seven goals, and behind her are Kyra Carusa and Marissa Sheva, who have combined for 14 caps and two goals. Among that group, Larkin can just about consider herself a veteran presence.
Without much experience or production to compete against on the forward line, Larkin has a decent chance to see the field and make some things happen for Ireland. She has real talent, offering the kind of speed and directness of attack that not too many of Ireland's other players have. She was one of the best players on the field in their final tune-up friendly against Zambia last month, and she's been relatively prolific in her still-young club career. She racked up seven goals and two assists in 23 appearances for Shelbourne in 2022, and so far this season she's made 13 starts for Shamrock Rovers, scoring four goals and getting one assist.
Who Is Their Enemy?
The blood-soaked Crown and the damned Unionists who stand in the way of a united Ireland!
Following their qualification playoff victory against Scotland, the Irish national team did some celebrating and singing in the locker room. Included in this harmless carousing was a sing-along to "Celtic Symphony," a song written by the Wolfe Tones as an ode to Celtic FC. Included in the song is a line about seeing some graffiti with the words, "Ooh, ahh, up the Ra," which is a sort of rallying cry making reference to the Irish Republican Army. Following the win over Scotland, footage of a group of Ireland players singing, "Ooh, ahh, up the Ra," was posted online:
Unfortunately for the team, this moment presented too good of an opportunity for uptight sods to make a big stink. Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie, a former member of the British Army who served during The Troubles, went so far as to call the team's celebration "just disgraceful" and a "a kick in the teeth for some of those who congratulated them and those supporters who lost loved ones at the hands of the IRA.”
The backlash was swift and severe enough that Pauw, the Irish federation, and several players had to issue public apologies. A low point was reached when defender Chloe Mustaki was forced to sit through a condescending interview with Sky Sports presenter Rob Wotton. It is impossible not to roll your eyes at the final question he asks her in this clip:
Thankfully, a few notable people came to the team's defense. Former Everton player Kevin Kilbane stuck up for Mustaki, and Irish international James McClean, whose refusal to wear the Remembrance Day poppy while playing in England made him a target for some of the country's worst people, posted a photo of himself posing with the Wolfe Tones.
National Folk Hero Who I Think Is Cool
I'm cheating a little bit here due to him being a much bigger deal in Northern Ireland, but given all the grief this team caught for singing a vaguely pro-IRA song, let's go with Bobby Sands.
Rest in peace, Bobby. Rest in piss, Margaret Thatcher.
Scran Or Not Scran: National Dish Edition
Irish stew is just a classic beef stew that leaves very little to complain about—you've got beef in there, carrots, potatoes, onions, things of that nature. Though all of the elements and flavors of scran are present here, I find myself unable to grant official scran status due to the dish's structure. Stew is simply not meant to be consumed quickly or easily, especially not while standing in a crowded soccer stadium; it's a cozy meal meant to be eaten on a cold day while wearing a wool sweater and sitting near a fire. For these reasons alone I must issue a designation of Not Scran.
What Would A Successful World Cup Look Like For This Team?
A successful World Cup run for this Ireland team would include making it out of the group stage and celebrating by singing every pro-IRA song that comes to them.