Stephanie Roche is not the world’s best goalscorer

And: Her goal was excellent, but it's right she didn't win the FIFA award.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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Ah, the FIFA Puskás award. It’s an accolade that every small boy dreams about. Well, small boys and, indeed, girls. Everyone seems to have an opinion on whether Stephanie Roche’s wonder strike for Peamount United should have won the FIFA goal of the season award. Roche’s stunning volley garnered 33 per cent of the public vote, but the award was won by Colombia’s James Rodriguez, whose belter against Uruguay in the World Cup took a 42 per cent share of votes. Did Roche deserve to win? Her goal was unquestionably spectacular, not to mention a YouTube sensation. But I reckon the public got this one right. Rodriguez’s goal quite rightly won because it was performed on football’s biggest stage.

What’s undeniable is that the intense media interest in Roche’s goal has done more to boost the status of the award than a thousand Sepp Blatter superlatives ever could. In fact, Roche is probably the best thing that ever happened to the Puskás award. You see, this particular prize isn’t one of football’s ancient and hallowed traditions. This one’s an arriviste. The brainchild of Herr Blatter, the award was introduced in 2009. Roche has said that she hopes her goal will change perceptions of woman’s football. We’ll have to wait and see whether one wonder goal is enough to get bums on seats. A cynic might say that FIFA’s decision to shortlist Roche was a clever marketing ploy for the women’s game. That’s certainly the view of Irish broadcaster, Ivan Yates: ‘Ah, it’s the height of tokenism. Even Andy Carroll can score against Wexford Youths. She was playing for Peamount United! Give me a break. To compare Van Persie, a world-class goal in a World Cup… I mean, what sort of defence would Wexford Youths put up?’

There is admittedly an ‘Aw bless, didn’t she do well?’ tone to the media lionisation of Roche. However, it would be wrong to say that FIFA engineered Roche’s celebrity status. The YouTube video clip of her goal had become a viral sensation – with over two million hits – long before FIFA drew up its shortlist. Prominent figures in the game, including Rio Ferdinand and Gary Lineker, had already been raving about the goal on Twitter.

Roche’s goal is undoubtedly a ‘worldie’ – to borrow a phrase from contemporary football parlance. I’ve been going to football for years and I don’t think I’ve seen a goal quite like that. Liquid football, as Alan Partridge would say. But where I think Ivan Yates has a point is that the standard of competition ought to be part of the judging criteria. I’m not sure this is simply about the quality of Wexford’s defence – although that is potentially a factor. Of course the marking could have been tighter, but you could say the same about the Uruguayan defence who allowed James Rodriguez to drift into space. Both goals, viewed purely through the lens of technique, are pretty similar. So, how do we choose between them? I think you have to factor in the size and importance of the stage. There simply can’t be the same degree of pressure in the Bus Éireann Women’s National League as there is in the World Cup. It’s like comparing a goal scored in training to one scored in a competitive match. How many times have you heard coaches saying, ‘He scores goals like that in training all the time’? The reality is that it’s easier to score wonder goals in training because there is no pressure. So, yes, the level of competition is a relevant measure of a goal’s value.

If you watch the video of Roche’s goal, you’ll notice that spectators are conspicuous by their absence. In fact, the official attendance was actually 95. I’m not sure that even qualifies as a crowd. By contrast, Rodriguez’s goal was scored at Rio de Janeiro’s iconic Maracena. The attendance that evening was 73,804 plus a global TV audience numbering tens of millions. Rodriguez, the golden boy of Colombian football, had the hopes and expectations of his nation (population 48 million) weighing on his shoulders. To deliver a goal of stunning beauty and power on a world stage with so much at stake surely sets Rodriguez’s goal apart, not just from Stephanie Roche’s but from most of the wonder goals you’ll see in the men’s game.

We can argue the toss over whether FIFA is guilty of tokenism. But football’s governing body is unquestionably guilty of relativism. When the Puskas award was launched in 2009, the judging criteria explicitly stipulated that, ‘The importance of the match should be taken into account’. FIFA has since amended the ‘rules of allocation’. Now, the shortlisted goals must be assessed ‘without distinction of championship, gender or nationality’. That’s nonsensical in my opinion. It removes an important and objective criterion for measuring the worth of a goal. If we disregard the standard of competition, all we are left with is the subjective question of which goal was most pleasing on the eye.

Roche has said, ‘I want to be recognised for my football rather than my gender’. Her goal might confound those sceptics who believe that women’s football lacks the power and athleticism of the men’s game. But I can’t help thinking that the gushing reaction to the YouTube video is largely down to the novelty of the goalscorer’s gender. If the goal had been by a man in a non-league fixture, would it have got anywhere near the FIFA shortlist? I very much doubt it. Roche’s goal is brilliant PR for the women’s game. But how many of the 1.1million people who voted for Roche’s goal would ever pay to watch a woman’s game? I think we know the answer. Until those who were fawning over Roche’s goal actually start going to matches, women’s football will remain an object of curiosity rather than a credible spectator sport.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @DuleepOffside

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Topics Politics


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