It didn’t take Republic of Ireland long to realise they had something special in Denise O’Sullivan. One match, her international debut in 2011, was all it took, with the forward - then just 17 - scoring both goals in a 2-0 UEFA EURO qualifying win over Wales.
“That was huge for me,” O’Sullivan recalled to FIFA.com, smiling at the memory. “I had been really nervous beforehand but as soon as I had my first touch, the nerves just disappeared. I loved it and I’ve loved playing for the national team ever since.”
Fast forward two-and-a-half years and O’Sullivan is now a 25-cap veteran, not to mention the leading scorer in her team’s unbeaten start to the FIFA Women’s World Cup™ preliminaries. She has also made the first big move of her career, leaving behind her hometown of Cork to join Scottish champions Glasgow City.
“That was a big decision because I’d never been away from my family, but I wanted to test myself and improve - and I’m doing that here,” she said. “Glasgow City are a great team and a great club, so well organised, and I enjoy living here. I come from a big family - I have four sisters and five brothers - and they’re always in touch with me, encouraging me. My brothers all played football and that was how I started out, just knocking the ball around with them.”
For O’Sullivan, a football journey that began with those humble family kick-abouts has led to a match of colossal importance. Arguably the biggest of her career to date, next Saturday’s Women’s World Cup qualifier is sure to be the toughest, with the Republic due to lock horns with eight-time European champions Germany. And while Irish form has been encouraging, their opponents’ has been nothing short of awesome, with 40 goals scored and none conceded in their qualifying campaign thus far. Sylvia Neid’s team will also arrive in Dublin boosted by an emphatic triumph in the recent Algarve Cup, and already stand eight points clear in Group 1 – albeit with the second-placed Irish still holding two games in hand.
We know we’ll be up against one of the best teams in the world. But playing them in Dublin, with a good crowd behind us, hopefully gives us a chance.
“The Germany game is huge for us and we know we’ll be up against one of the best teams in the world,” said O’Sullivan. “But playing them in Dublin, with a good crowd behind us, hopefully gives us a chance to do something. Interest in this game has been huge. There are busloads of people going up from Cork for the game to cheer us on, so we’ll not be short of support.
“It’s part-time players going up against full-time professionals, so there’s always going to be a physical difference to overcome there. But if you look at the Ireland team and compare it to this time last year, there’s a big difference. We’re playing against bigger, higher-ranked nations and really holding our own. The Cyprus Cup recently was a good example because we drew with South Korea and New Zealand, beat Switzerland and were unlucky to lose 2-1 to Canada. No-one has it easy against us these days.”
But while fearing no-one, and well aware that only the seven group winners in Europe are guaranteed a place at Canada 2015, the Irish are realistic about their chances. “Our aim is to finish second and get into the play-offs,” said O’Sullivan. “So although Germany is a massive game for us, the one in May against Russia (four points behind the Irish in third) is probably even bigger. We need to win that one, and we’re well capable.”
Though still just 20, O’Sullivan already has a firm idea of what is required to qualify for – and thrive at – a Women’s World Cup. She was, after all, one of the star players in an Irish team that went all the way to the last eight at the U-17 finals in 2010, finishing top of a group that included Brazil, Canada and Ghana. And the enthusiasm with which she describes that experience in Trinidad and Tobago makes it plain that it has merely whetted her appetite for more.
“It was just amazing,” she said. “We had the time of our lives. Beating Canada and Ghana was fantastic, and we just came up short against Japan in the quarter-finals (a 2-1 defeat in which O’Sullivan scored the Republic’s goal). That was a very strong group of players. We also got to the final of the EURO and only lost on penalties, and these days a lot of those U-17 girls are in the senior team. There were seven of us at the Cyprus Cup who had played in Trinidad and Tobago, and I think even more will come through.
“That World Cup was also massive in kicking off interest in women’s football in Ireland; I’ve seen a big change since then. But to take it to another level altogether, what we need to do is qualify for the big one. It will be tough, we know that. But making it to Canada is definitely the dream.”