Northern Ireland looking to cement legacy
Northern Ireland hosts Women’s U-19 EURO (8–20 August 2017)
Four berths at 2018 U-20 Women’s World Cup available
Tournament can leave lasting legacy on NI women's game
As the dust settles on one major international tournament in the women’s game, another is set to get underway. Just two days after hosts Netherlands savoured UEFA Women’s EURO success, the UEFA Women's Under-19 Championship kicks off in Northern Ireland, where four berths at the 2018 FIFA U-20 Women’s Cup are up for grabs.
While the likes of Spain, Germany, France and England are among the eight finalists vying for continental glory, the U-19 EURO presents new ground for hosts Northern Ireland; yet to feature at a major women’s international tournament and very much minnows compared to the seasoned tournament regulars who have gathered in the Emerald Isle.
But with significant investment having gone into the U-19 team, the Irish Football Association (IFA) are keen not only to showcase the development of women’s football within Northern Ireland, but help build the foundations for a stronger women’s senior team in the future.
"The U-19 EURO is the biggest group of people we’ve ever mobilised to work on a women’s football event ," said tournament director Sara Booth, speaking to FIFA.com. "We wanted to host this tournament to grow the women’s game and see more girls and young boys playing football after watching elite European talent at this level. We want this tournament to leave a legacy."
Group A: Northern Ireland, Germany, Scotland, Spain
Group B: Italy, Netherlands, France, England
Take a stroll through Belfast and you can’t miss the billboards, flags and buses clad with the competition signage, while the official tournament song and mascot have also captured the imagination of football fans in the country. Though significant investment has gone into the marketing of the tournament, resources have also been heavily extended to the U-19 team itself.
"The investment we’ve put it into the players over the last two years – sports science, psychology – we’ve never invested as much in a group of players before," said Booth, a former Northern Ireland captain. "The hope for us is that we will have a talented group who will go on to make senior international appearances and it kicks off from there."
Senior aspirations The pathway for Northern Ireland U-19 talents hoping to graduate to senior level is perhaps more open with head coach Alfie Wylie leading both teams. With qualifying starting for the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup just next month, those who impress at the U-19 EURO may find themselves playing a part on the road to France 2019.
"That’s the incentive we’ve given to the players," Wylie told FIFA.com. "There’s not many teams at this tournament where the coach also leads the senior team, so every time the players impress, the senior team manager is seeing first-hand what they can do.
"This is the start of a pathway for them," Wylie continued. "All of this doesn’t stop when the tournament is over, this is part of the journey. We’re keen to show that we are developing, and with the girls that are coming through, we hope to be a force in the future."
World Cup dreams Placed 60th in the FIFA/Coca-Cola Women’s World Ranking, Northern Ireland are yet to appear at a women’s FIFA tournament and the senior side find themselves ranked as the bottom seed in a daunting group consisting of Norway, the Netherlands, Republic of Ireland and Slovakia on the road to France 2019. The U-19 EURO, however, presents a real opportunity for the country to reach their first global finals in the form of the U-20 Women’s World Cup, where four berths for France 2018 are available.
"To think we could qualify for France next year, it would be incredible," said Booth. "Alfie is excited by that potential but we all know that it’s a tough challenge – there’s no easy teams in this draw."
Northern Ireland have fond and very vivid memories of France, where the men’s senior team reached the knockout stages of UEFA EURO 2016 at their maiden continental championships despite being one of the smallest teams at the tournament. As the U-19 team look to try and secure a place at France 2018 and spring a surprise of their own, they will no doubt use the exploits of Michael O’Neill’s senior side last year as added motivation.
"The U-19s take inspiration from how well our boys did last summer and that’s very much the hope of our association that that’ll pass on and inspire our girls to do great things."