The first female to win the Puskas award. The first Irish person to win the Puskas award. It has quite a ring to it. Stephanie Roche. The name now ubiquitous. Robin van Persie, James Rodriguez. Not only will you have heard these names before, but you probably saw the goals for which they are nominated, both of them being scored in the World Cup. Van Persie’s diving header for the Netherlands will live on in World Cup history, watched by millions and utterly memorable. Rodriguez’s goal, scored for Columbia against Uruguay, with impressive control of the ball on his chest and a spectacular volley, was a masterclass and voted goal of the tournament. Yet neither of these goals, played on an international stage, involved quite as much skill and nerve as that of 25-year-old Stephanie Roche for Peamount United against Wexford Youths. She was perfectly daring in scoring that goal, now lauded far and wide. It was practically audacious, yet Stephanie looked in complete control of its execution.
The fact is, though, that deciding a winner (by public vote) is always going to be subjective. There have been calls to arms across the country: not just to get behind Stephanie and vote because she’s Irish, but because she deserves to win. How I’d love to ask Van Persie and Rodriguez what they really think. You cannot help but marvel at Roche’s goal, at her pure, unadulterated skill. Having said that you’d have to wonder if there was a certain amount, even just a pinch, of luck involved. When I asked her to describe the thought process behind executing this now distinguished goal, however, Stephanie says it was very much a case of instinct: “I’ve been playing with Aine O’Gorman, who crossed the ball to me, since I was 13 and when it came to me instinct just took over and the rest is history.” This was no fluke.
Given the now illustrious status of this goal it is a wonder to think that it may have been destined to be forgotten. For those who don’t religiously attend Peamount United v Wexford Youths games, this goal, this piece of wondrous skill was very almost fated as merely the stuff of legend, rumour even, eventually fading into myth. As chance would have it, however, an injured Wexford Youths player was videoing the game, a fairly irregular thing to do with these matches. The football gods just couldn’t let this one go by. Fate favours the fearless after all. Just one of the many adjectives you could use to describe the playing style of Stephanie Roche. American basketball player and coach John Wooden once said: ”Make everyday your masterpiece.” An attitude and mindset that, as a sportsman, must make him akin to Stephanie. Her exceptional goal is evidence to the fact that compelling football, and indeed sport, can be found at any level, on any stage, on any given day.
There is really only one word to describe this story for a footballer such as Stephanie Roche. That word is fairytale.
This thought prompts me to ask Stephanie if she has ever created or witnessed any other moments of footballing brilliance and genius that may have fallen under the radar. “There have been one or two that haven’t been captured but I think that’s fair to say of the amateur game all over the world,” she says. “There will always be flashes of brilliance that don’t get captured because its not on a big media stage.” Clearly that Wexford Youths Player is owed more than a thanks. Stephanie will, deservedly, find herself at the prestigious Ballon d’Or awards in Zurich this January, brushing shoulders with eminent and exalted footballers from the world’s best teams. It’s the stuff of dreams for any young footballer. To say that she’s really looking forward to it must be an understatement. “I’m really excited to be going to the awards. I really admire all of the other nominees in all the categories so it’s a huge honour to be going. Every year I watch the highlights on television so it will be amazing to be there in person”. Will she feel in awe of such superstars? Who knows. Then again, she’s already beaten the likes of Zlatan Ibramovic, Diego Costa, Camilo Sanvenzzo and Tim Cahill, widely extolled for their best goals of the year. How does it feel? “It’s surreal,” she says. “These are players that I watch on the TV and it’s just overwhelming to think that I’ve made the top three over them. It’s a huge honour.”
So what are the perceived chances of our prodigious goal score actually winning the award? If you’re a betting man or woman, the odds on Stephanie are shortening all the time, though Rodriguez remains the favourite. Stephanie’s goal is about so much more than the goal itself though. Van Persie and Rodriguez were helping their countries in a bid for the World Cup,sports greatest honour, scoring magnificent goals under the most intense of pressure, the hopes of an entire nation, a burden on their shoulders. Stephanie’s goal on the other hand represents an idea long oppressed and oft dismissed as impossible: the idea that a female can play sport as skillfully as men. No doubt men will seek to emulate that perfectly adroit technique used by Roche, just as women will too.
These are moot points, however. This is the Puskas Award for “the most beautiful goal of the year” and on this criterion it should be judged by those with the power to do so: you and I. On this basis Roche, should be walking away from Zurich, the first female to win the award. The goal for Peamount United is not beautiful, it is exquisite. If Stephanie is to win this award she will have achieved a feat entirely unprecedented. There is really only one word to describe this story for a footballer such as Stephanie Roche. That word is fairytale. Winning will see her name added to a list including Neymar and Cristiano Ronaldo. Winning will see her conferred with a fame that shall not diminish. That goal is eternal.
Life has undoubtedly changed for Stephanie since playing that game for Peamount. She now plays her football with professional club ASPTT Albi in France. Coupled with her new found acclaim, it’s been a special few months. Asked about how she is adapting, Stephanie talks about becoming a better player. Everything that has happened recently she can use heuristically to be the best that she can be for ASPTT Albi. “It’s been a bit of a culture shock, trying to adjust to life here and trying to get to grips with the language,” she says. “But it’s been great for my football. It’s brilliant to be able to train full time and being able to focus on becoming a better player.”
She certainly won’t be letting any fame go to her head. Speaking of this fame, though, Stephanie has been receiving an immense amount of well-wishes, including huge names such as Gary Lineker. In typically unpretentious form, however, when I ask what she has been most touched by, Roche says, “I’m getting a lot of positive feedback from young girls who play football and that’s really nice for me. She also mentions a special moment: “I was delighted when John Hartson analysed my goal on TV and said that it was a technically great goal”. For Roche, it’s all about technique.
Does this dexterous use of technique represent the pinnacle of Stephanie Roche’s career? Is this her apotheosis? Let’s hope not. Let’s hope instead for goals even more beautiful than the last. To win this award may be to reach the apex of Stephanie’s football career so far, but personally it would mean so much more. “To win would be amazing,” she says. “I’ve been playing football since I was a child. When I was younger there weren’t very many girls teams so I had to fight to keep playing the sport that I love. To win this award would just be a fantastic honour.”
The thought that an exceptional young footballer who struggled to find and keep an outlet for her talent is now nominated to win one of the most coveted prizes in world football is fantastical, and yet it is real. The fact that winning this award is no longer a chimera but an attainable goal is pioneering and indeed sentimental. Like I said, fairytale. I wonder has she thought about what it would be like to be the first female to win the Puskas award and the significance of this for other female footballers? “Obviously it would be amazing to be the first woman to win the award,” she says. “I just hope that even my nomination will help to promote the women’s game throughout the world and ensure that it gets more media attention because there are many great players that people don’t get to see playing.” A maiden and a trailblazer then. No other nation has the ability to deal in surprises and defy the supposedly impossible in the realm of sports than this nation and it will be a great day for Irish sport if Stephanie walks away with the award in January. Either way, she deserves her place amongt the stars.
Get behind Stephanie and vote at fifa.com.