Stephanie Roche is proof of soccer’s capacity to change lives with one moment.
With her back to goal, she collected a cross with a deft touch with her right foot, another with her left cleverly knocked the ball over her marker’s head, and then she swiveled and launched a rocket from the edge of the area into the corner of the net, all without the ball touching the ground. The virtuoso move took perhaps three seconds but the echoes are still being felt eighteen months on.
The strike for Irish side Peamount United in October 2013 quickly went viral. Now Roche is a member of the Houston Dash — via the White House (right), a meeting with the Irish prime minister and a glittering awards ceremony in Switzerland where she mixed with the most famous names in world soccer.
Roche was named runner-up in the FIFA Puskás Award for goal of the year at the Ballon D’Or ceremony in Zurich last January, where Cristiano Ronaldo was crowned the world’s best player. She was only beaten by James Rodriguez’s goal for Colombia in last summer’s World Cup. But Roche’s presence at the ceremony was still an extraordinary triumph. She was the first woman to make the final three-person shortlist. There were perhaps a hundred people at the match against Wexford Youths, but her piece of magic has been seen by millions.
“For me it really has been a whirlwind. Between going for the Ballon D’Or awards in January and then the last few months, the Ballon D’Or awards feel like so long ago. It’s really just been great. Everybody back in Ireland and a lot of people round the world have been very supportive to me. I’ve been given the opportunity to come and play in Houston, got to go to the White House, it’s been a crazy few months,” the 25-year-old told HoustonDashSoccer.com after her first training session at Houston Sports Park.
She said that attending the gala Ballon D’Or ceremony as one of the nominees was surreal. “We really were treated like royalty over there. We were given special treatment getting off the plane, we were driven over to the baggage claim and on the way back it was the same thing. We were really well looked after in the hotel and we were sitting with the likes of Jogi Loew, the German manager, Thierry Henry was there, just so many celebrities around. It was meant to be normal but we were just looking around, like there’s Thierry Henry! I think that has to be the biggest [shock] — wow, I’m actually at the Ballon D’Or awards!”
Born in Dublin, and an experienced Ireland international, she has become an icon in her homeland. Last week she spent a day in Austin at the opening of the new Irish Embassy, where she met Enda Kenny, Ireland's Taoiseach (prime minister). On Tuesday, at a St. Patrick’s Day event at the White House, she shook hands with President Obama.
“He’s quite tall, quite handsome! He seems like a cool guy. There were 600 people there so he tried to shake a couple of hands and I was lucky enough to get to shake his hand so I was happy with that. I pretty much just said ‘hello, nice to meet you’ type of thing and shook his hand. I was trying to get a selfie but it was a bit hard because I’m right handed and I had to shake with my right hand! I was trying to get the selfie with the left but I couldn’t hold the phone,” she said.
Her technique does not usually fail her. Proving that her wonder goal was no fluke, she netted another brilliant strike earlier this month for Ireland against Costa Rica.
“I’m not the biggest girl, I’d be quite slight, but I’ve always worked on my technique, I think technique is the best part and the biggest part of knowing how to play football — you need to be able to use the football and make the football do what I want to do. I’ve worked on my technique quite a lot over the years and it’s paid off,” she said.
“From watching the American league, it’s very physical and athletic and I’m basically a technical player, a flair player I suppose, so I want to improve myself physically, I want to get better as a player and I think being here is the best place to do it. I just want to get sharper, fitter, better and stronger.”
Dash head coach Randy Waldrum is enthusiastic about adding Roche’s skill and her high profile to the team as they prepare for their sophomore season in the National Women’s Soccer League, with the first match on April 10 against the Washington Spirit at BBVA Compass Stadium.
“She brings an excitement to the women’s game,” he told HoustonDashSoccer.com. “You can tell technically she’s a really, really sound player … she strikes the ball really well. It’s no surprise, the kind of goals she’s been putting up for Ireland. I think she’s going to be quite a nice player for us.” While it’s still early in preseason, Waldrum envisages using Roche up front, centrally or out wide depending on whether he goes with a two- or three-woman forward line.
Roche knows That Goal will never be forgotten, and its echoes will follow her wherever she goes. While deeply grateful for the opportunities it has afforded her on and off the field, she joined the Dash to prove she can cope with the challenge of being a professional and playing for 90 minutes in one of the most rigorous leagues in the world.
“That’s why I came here. Because I could have stayed in Ireland and played, done some commercial stuff and probably made money out of that, but I wanted to come away and play football and do well. Playing football is what I want to do and why I’m here. It’s probably one of the best leagues in the world if not the best, so it’s the perfect chance for me to come and prove that I’m a pro footballer and not just [about] that one goal,” she said.
Tom Dart is a contributing writer to HoustonDynamo.com and HoustonDashSoccer.com. Former editor and reporter for The Times of London and reporter for SI.com, Dart currently freelances for The Guardian.