Local woman Michelle makes history at Women's World Cup
An Enniscorthy woman has made history by becoming the first Irish person to officiate at a senior FIFA World Cup Final. Michelle O'Neill (40) was one of the lineswomen in Sunday's Women's World Cup Final between the United States and the Netherlands at the Stade de Lyon in France, a game which the States won 2-0.
'It was absolutely out of this world. It lives up to its name: World Cup Final,' said Michelle reflecting on her experience.
Having only began refereeing in 2008, Michelle had previously officiated in the 2015 Women's World Cup and worked the line in the final of last year's Women's U-20 tournament. But it had been her ambition to be part of a senior World Cup Final team, an ambition which she has now fulfilled.
'Everything fell into place with my training, the matches. It was my target to make as few mistakes as possible, to get all the big decisions correct. And when I got a quarter final I came off feeling that it had gone really well. We have meetings, debriefs, in the auditorium, and it was announced there that we'd been given the final. We got a standing ovation from all the other officials,' she said.
With 47 tournament officials selected for the tournament, Michelle was teamed up with French referee Stéphanie Frappart and her compatriot Manuela Nicolosi. It was a combination good enough to be chosen for the showpiece event, a game attended by almost sixty thousand people and watched by millions throughout the world.
Yet despite the magnitude of the occasion, Michelle was able to block everything out and concentrate on the job at hand.
'We knew it would be a respectful game. It was the World Champions against the European Champions. You turn up and you're so focused on what you're doing. It's just another game; white against orange.'
However, in the moments leading up to the game, Michelle had a chance encounter with star of the tournament, US captain and eventual Golden Boot winner, Megan Rapinoe.
'I always do an equipment check in the tunnel before the game, a final check before going out. I met Megan and shook her hand, she asked me was I ready, I replied 'hey I was born ready'. She just smiled, I think she respected me then. She's an amazing ambassador for women's sport. It's great to see,' recalled Michelle.
From there Michelle went out and did what she does best, running the line with a minimum of fuss and ensuring the game passed with any major incident. When the final whistle blew, and it was all over, she took a moment to reflect on what she'd done.
'At the final whistle I looked around the stadium and was like "Wow". Then, when I was going up to get my medal I was able to pick my family out of the crowd, out of 60,000 people. That was the icing on the cake, it was so emotional.'
But having now reached the pinnacle of her profession where does Michelle go from here?
'I want to stay up here, as long as I can. We have a saying "celebrate until midnight, tomorrow's another day". We have the European Championships coming up, that's another goal of mine. I'll probably take a week off and then I'll be back to work in the League of Ireland games.'
And with women's football now front-page news and interest in the game at an all-time high, Michelle is hopeful other Irish women will follow in her footsteps.
'Maybe people will see what I've done and think "let's pick up a flag". Anyone can do it. I did it ten years ago and look where I am now.'