In the immortal words of The Godfather of Soul, James Brown, ‘It’s a man’s world.’ Despite the fact that women’s soccer is growing steadily in Ireland, it still operates massively in the shadow of its male counterpart. However, one woman looks set to change all that and bring Irish women’s soccer to international media attention as she takes her seat alongside Robin Van Persie and James Rodriguez at the annual FIFA Awards ceremony which takes place in Zurich next month.
Shankhill native Stephanie Roche has seemingly done the impossible in making the top three shortlist for the Ferenc Puskas Goal of the Year competition with her wonder-strike for Peamount United against Wexford Youths. Despite the fact that she hails from a country that has a population of just over 4 million people; despite the fact that she has not (yet!) gained a worldwide fan base like her fellow competitors and despite the fact that the footage of her goal is the kind of grainy camera work you would expect from one of your mates outside the kebab shop at three in the morning, Stephanie has managed to out-Zlatan Zlatan Ibrahimovic and has ‘Costa’ (see what I did there!?) Diego Costa his place in the running for this prestigious award.
How did this happen you ask? I don’t think Stephanie herself has quite figured that out yet. ‘I still don’t think it’s really hit me,’ she said, speaking from France where she currently plays professionally for ASPTT Albi, having transferred from Peamount United. ‘I haven’t had a chance to see my family or my friends and talk to them about it, so I’m really looking forward to getting home on December 23 and having a little bit of a celebration at Christmas. Obviously I won’t get to go too mad, because I’m back over here playing in January, but I’ll enjoy being back with family and friends at home.’
Personally, while I bought into the whole effort and voted on every internet enabled device I could get my hands on, I thought the chances of Stephanie making the top three were remote enough. However, she says that having seen the support back home, she began to believe. ‘I think all of the support I got in Ireland and from the club here in France pushed to me believe that I might just be able to make it,’ she said. ‘So many people were voting both here and back home and I can’t thank them enough. Obviously I’m the first woman ever to make the shortlist and it’s something I’m very proud of and delighted to have done.’
On that note, however, Roche refutes any accusations that it was some kind of ploy by FIFA to support female soccer. ‘I’m really happy with my goal,’ she said. ‘I think that I’ve gotten where I am on merit rather than it being any kind of token gesture.’
As for the competition, having already dumped out such names as Zlatan and Costa, Stephanie will have little fear for Manchester United’s Robin Van Persie or Real Madrid’s James Rodriguez.
‘Obviously there are both world class goals,’ she said. ‘Both were scored in the World Cup. But I think last year’s winner was scored in an international friendly, so you never know what will happen.’
Speaking of that wonder strike, it’s the kind of goal I’ve always wanted to score, but haven’t even managed to do in FIFA. There was no element of ‘hit and hope’ in it either. ‘I think it was a combination of planning and instinct,’ said Roche. ‘I remember I was being marked very tightly in that game, so I knew I’d have a bit of space in behind my marker. After that, it all happened really fast and instinct took over, but I was delighted to see it hit the back of the net.’
Stephanie’s wonder strike and a series of glittering performances for Peamount quickly put her on the radar of professional clubs and she is currently adjusting to life in France at ASPTT Albi.
‘It’s taken a bit of adjustment but I think I’m getting back to my best in the last few weeks,’ she said. ‘It’s a big change but I’m just delighted to be able to focus on my football full time and I want to continue to play at this level.’
Stephanie concedes that the French league is a big step up from the Irish one she left, but she is relishing the challenge. ‘I suppose in the international team I would’ve played against some really world class opponents, but here I’m doing that week in, week out and I have to be on top of my game every time I play. Playing back home, sometimes I was operating at 50%, but I’ve really had to raise my game here and hopefully it’s something that I can take into the national team with me and hopefully we can qualify for a major tournament.’
Super Steph is now looking forward to the official ceremony in Zurich on January 12 and is maybe even hoping she can go that little bit further and win it. ‘You just never know,’ she laughed. ‘Hopefully everyone back home will get behind me again, as it starts from scratch again now. The support I’ve had already has been amazing and I’m delighted to be going to the ceremony with a chance.’
So c’mon everyone! You heard the woman! Do your patriotic duty and get voting for Steph!! You can do so here: http://www.fifa.com/ballon-dor/puskas-award/
by Podge Byrne