It was an honour to speak to Stephanie Roche for the Extraordinary Women series and I sincerely hope that she wins the FIFA Puskás Award tomorrow, not because she is female, but because she is a player who possesses incredible skill, discipline and love for her sport.
In 2009, the FIFA Puskás Award was established, honouring Ferenc Puskás, Hungarian international and striker for Real Madrid in the late fifties and sixties. In 528 matches, Puskás scored 512 goals. The award is given to the ‘most aesthetically significant, or most beautiful’ goal of the year and is decided by public vote. Previous winners include Cristiano Ronaldo, Fernando Torres and Andrés Iniesta.
The eleventh FIFA Puskás Award winner will be announced tomorrow evening at FIFA’s Ballon d’Or ceremony in Zurich. The three finalists include Robin van Persie, James Rodríguez and Stephanie Roche. The former two goals were scored at the World Cup in Brazil whilst Stephanie occurred in front of just ninety five spectators in October 2013 when Peamount United played against Wexford Youths.
Stephanie Roche is both the first Irish player and the first woman to be a nominee and a finalist for the award. Upon the announcement, a media frenzy occured with David Luiz, Ian Wright, Roy Keane, Rio Ferdinand and Gary Lineker heralding Stephanie’s talent and skill.
On the eve of the ceremony, Stephanie’s goal has been viewed more than two million times and whilst this competition has catapulted her to immeasurable fame, Stephanie continues to make time to speak to and advise the young girls who spectate at matches.
How would you describe yourself both personally and professionally?
I suppose I’m an outgoing, happy person and most people who know me will tell you that I’m confident and honest. Professionally, I think being honest is of huge value as I’m always straight up with people and I get on with most of the players. That really helps!
What first drew you to football?
My two brothers were always involved in football and when I was very young, my Dad coached too. I just loved football from an early age, I was always out on the street playing football with my friends and if I wasn’t out with my friends, I’d be with my brothers and if I wasn’t with them, I’d be out on the street on my own playing football. I was never really without a football and anyone who lived in the estate where I grew up will be able to tell you that, I’d be constantly kicking a ball against their wall and I’m really lucky that the love for football has always stayed with me.
How has football continued to keep your interest?
At the age of fourteen or fifteen, a lot of the girls who I trained with, stopped playing but there were a couple of us, like myself and Áine O’Gorman, who loved football and gave up almost everything for it. We put football first ahead of everything and there’s no real explanation as to why we did that. I was lucky to get into the Irish squad and that gave me a focus and a goal to reach for and work towards. I always wanted to play for a senior Irish team and I’m really fortunate to have done and to do that. My goal was always to work as hard as I could so that I could play on the Irish team and aim to play professionally. I was really lucky that I had that focus and such support from my family and friends too.
You mentioned having to give up everything for football, in those early years were people understanding that perhaps you didn’t have as much free time as your classmates?
To be honest, I don’t think that they had much of an option ha! If I had a match or training, that’s what I went to. All of my friends did know that if a night out was happening or if people were getting together, their first port of call would be to check if Steph has a match. They know what I’m like and that I would never go out if I had a match the following day. It’s something that my family and friends have got used to over the years. My family are hugely supportive and particularly my Dad, he has been my biggest supporter for all of my life and he always encouraged me to try my hardest. My friends and family understand that with me, football comes first and I’m lucky that not only do they respect that but they encourage it too.
It’s been over a year since that acclaimed goal against Wexford Youths was recorded but how have you changed as a person and as a player since then?
I think as a player, I grew some confidence from it. It’s amazing to see so many people talking about my goal and I’d like to think that this didn’t just happen by chance as I do score goals, not maybe as good as that particular one, but near to that most weeks at training and at matches. Previous to this, I didn’t think it would ever be noticed and not just me but on the whole, in the Women’s National League in Ireland, a lot of the players don’t get noticed nor do they get recognition for what they are doing. It was nice for me to get recognised as a player but it was also great to get an opportunity to place the Women’s National League in the spotlight. As a person, it has made me appreciate what football can bring to me and the many opportunities it has given me in the past. Even before the goal happened, I’ve been lucky enough to travel around the world and to play for my country. That’s something that a lot of people, either male or female, haven’t had the fortune of doing. It’s made me appreciate and understand why I love football so much.
Over the past couple of months, the support which you have gained for the Puskas Goal of the Year Awards has been phenomenal both from the layman and the football community. What experiences have you had in relation to the family that is football?
When I played at home with Peamount United, Raheny United would have been our biggest rivals but so many of the players from that team have come together to support me, it’s been incredible. In saying that, if in the future colleagues or rival team players were involved in something like this, I would be doing my best to publicise their hard work and would give them as much support as I could. I mean, it’s not really about me at the minute, it’s about women’s football and I’m doing everything I can to try to promote it. I’m the first person in Ireland to be nominated for something like this and to be shortlisted to the final three, I’m honoured to be representing Ireland and at the same time, to be representing women’s football.
The support and almost family relations that exists between players, is that unique to teams in Ireland or does it also exist in France?
With the language barrier, it’s quite different for me in France with ASPTT Albi and although there has been quite a lot of support here, it’s a challenge for me as I don’t really understand what’s going on to be honest… I’ve had strangers come up to me in the street and say ‘Congratulations!’ and ask me for pictures and stuff. It’s been a bit surreal. Much like the way the support from Ireland has been so incredible, it’s amazing to feel that people who I have never met before genuinely think that I deserve this.
In relation to that language barrier, how have you had to accommodate your skills or body language to facilitate that?
I’ve been in France for over five months and have picked up some of the basics in language. I understand far more than I can say but on the pitch, I very quickly learned the keywords that I needed in order to get the ball or where to be or where to move. It’s off the pitch where I have the greatest challenge. We train five days a week and a match one day a week. It’s been difficult as after training, I just come back home. I did prepare myself mentally and physically to be here and knew that sometimes I would feel lonely being away from my family and my boyfriend but it’s been extra hard due to the language barrier. It is something that perhaps I didn’t really think about before I came to France, I just wanted to play football at a professional level and although it’s been tough, the sport itself is making it worthwhile.
It seems that the greatest challenge in encouraging women to play football is not at the childhood stage as those who want to play, will find an outlet but as girls and women grow older, maintaining their interest and their attendance is difficult. Do you have any ideas on what can be done to encourage girls to stay playing the sport?
I think young girls will only play football if they really think that they will enjoy it or if their friends play. It’s when they get to the age of fourteen or fifteen that perhaps they begin to be distracted by other things and realise that with football, they can’t do everything. It’s there where we need to keep girls involved and throughout this whole journey, some people have said that what’s happening to me right now, might give young girls a goal and a focus that previously they might not have had in football. Seeing the popularity or attention that I’m getting at the moment, without sounding like too much of an idiot, it might inspire girls to realise that if they work hard and train as I did, this could be them in a few years time. It’s great to see women getting the recognition that they deserve in sport and particularly football, we put the same amount of effort and work into our sport as most of the men do and they’re in news and receive praise nearly every day. It’s great that it’s finally our turn!
Is that role of being a female ambassador for football and for sport something which you embrace or is there an element of pressure involved too?
To be honest with you, it’s something I’ve only even begun to think about. Growing up, playing for Ireland was something that I wanted to do for myself. It was never my intention to do it because young girls were looking at me, I didn’t even know or realise that it could be a possibility. Since the goal went viral, there has been an increase in the number of girls in the stands watching matches and wanting to talk to me after the game. I’ll always make time for them. I usually spend half an hour or forty minutes after a game speaking to young girls, giving them jerseys and finding small ways to try to keep them interested. I think I’ve embraced it more than anything, I don’t want to do anything wrong but I would like to believe that I’m a nice and genuine person so I never really think of myself as an inspiration or anything mad like that but I’m really happy that young girls do look up to me and I’m quite proud to be able to say that I’m a role model to young girls.
If we look past January 12th and the awards ceremony, the media frenzy that is surrounding you and female football at the moment, what would you like this phenomenon to be a vehicle for? Is it to create a different perception of female footballers, is it to get FIFA and the FAI to question where they place their funding?
I think there’s a lot of interest in women’s football at the moment but the main factor which needs to be addressed is funding, as you said. I watched Germany play England in Wembley late last year and they had 45,000 people at the game, that just shows that people have a huge appetite for watching football and that if women’s football is put on show and publicised, people will have an interest and might attend. That takes a lot of funding and I know that at the minute, women’s football perhaps doesn’t give back as much as the men’s football but at the same time, if there is money invested in our sport, FIFA and the FAI will reap the rewards. It needs funding and it needs publicity. Technically, we have excellent skilled footballers all around the world, if people knew where and when they were playing, I genuinely believe that they would really enjoy watching and supporting us.
I think we all have an element of responsibility, not just particular bodies or broadcasters but the ordinary person, we need to be in the stands or watching the match on television.
Definitely! RTÉ have given the Women’s National League quite a bit of support, they showed the Women’s National Cup Final on TV for the past two years, which prior to that had never happened before. We really hope that continues and that they broadcast the highlights of our matches on ‘Soccer Republic’ too. For me, the next step would be to have a highlights show of just the Women’s League and I think that can be easily done. It might only be a half hour show but it’s something that I would love to see, the quality of women’s football in Ireland is incredible and a lot of the girls give up a huge amount to play and I really believe that they deserve it.
In football, I imagine you experience a spectrum of emotions but as a person, how do you manage that rollercoaster of emotions that is innate to the career?
Anyone who plays football knows that it is a very emotional game. When I was younger, if I wasn’t playing in the match I wouldn’t be happy – something which my old managers will be well able to tell you about. As a player, I’ve definitely matured and I still want to be playing every game but I do understand that only eleven people can play. When I first arrived in France, I didn’t start or even play in every match, I would sit there watching the games and the players and knew that I could do what my teammates were doing but I understood my manager’s decisions and choices. That can be hard and even when I am playing a match, if something goes wrong, I would spend the evening texting my friend Áine (O’Gorman) and together we would break down what went right or what went wrong in our respective matches. That feeling of doing something wrong doesn’t leave you though, it could go on for days but it’s not something that I think you can extract from football. If I came away from a game, having either played or not played, and didn’t feel annoyed about something or didn’t want to improve something, I think that would be the first sign that I no longer loved the game.
Perhaps it’s an Irish-ism that we dwell on the negatives rather than celebrating the positives, do you take time to almost compliment yourself or appreciate the moment if something good happens in a game?
If I played a game where I scored a goal and we won and within the match there were one or two things that didn’t go well, I wouldn’t dwell on those negatives and would always celebrate the game but most professional footballers or even athletes will tell you that they constantly work hard to improve and get better. That’s what I strive for.
Throughout this entire voting campaign, was there any one moment in that manic frenzy that was particularly unexpected?
I think seeing my goal being analysed by John Hartson on BBC and the way in which he treated the analysis professionally was incredible. He slowed it down and explained to the audience exactly what happened. He looked at the goal and defined it as great, regardless of me being female and the fact that he said it was the best of the three obviously helped but it was nice to see him to do that. Also, there has been so much support from people on Twitter, Facebook and on the TV, to see it receiving such an amount of recognition has been incredible.
Being a year younger than you, the fact that I will soon be approaching my thirties somewhat terrifies me but what do you aspire to achieve and do, either personally or professionally, within the next five years?
Professionally, I would love to play full-time with the Irish team and to get to a final with those girls, many of them I’ve grown up with, would be fantastic. That would be my number one goal, professionally. Personally, I don’t really know as I haven’t really had that much time to have a personal life, outside of football but I always said that I would like to have a family but I don’t think it’s going to happen anytime soon. I’ll put it on hold for a while but sometime in the future, I’d like to get a house with my boyfriend and start a life together but for now, football is the main focus for both of us.
Thank you so much to Stephanie, Karla and Gerry for their time and support. You can follow Stephanie’s journey via Instagram and Twitter but there are just hours left to vote for Stephanie Roche to win FIFA’s Puskás Award, please vote here.
Further ‘Extraordinary Women’ can be found here.