Team GB are not competing in the Olympic football competition this summer, while the home nations had varying degrees of success at the Euros.
Casting around for a group of footballing heroes? Your search is over. In Italy, Great Britain’s Deaf women’s team have just won bronze at the Deaf World Cup.
They beat Poland 2-0 in the third-place play-off, with goals from Laura Wiseman and Ceara Toal, having lost in the final minute to Russia in their semi-final. “We pulled together as a squad after such a big disappointment the previous day of just missing out on the final,” explains captain Claire Stancliffe. “That heartbreak made us stronger.”
Ladies and gentlemen, may we present you with Deaf World Cup 2016 bronze medal winners Great Britain Deaf Women⚽️??? pic.twitter.com/pRDgtWzQIg
— GBDeafFootball (@GB_DeafFootball) July 1, 2016
“I just knew we had done it, with about five minutes to go,” adds goalkeeper Gemma Newsom, on the bench for that match. ”Poland had no chance in coming back. But my God, the last few minutes of the game felt like hours, I just wanted the final whistle to go. I felt so incredibly proud of the entire squad and very proud to have been given the opportunity to represent my country.”
Their achievement is even more impressive when one considers their complete lack of funding. They operate independently, are staffed completely by volunteers, and had to launch a massive crowdfunding campaign to even get as far as the tournament.
“Russia are full-time professional footballers,” says Newsom, drawing a comparison to the teams who made the final.
“The players live together, train together and have massive financial support from their government; they are currently European champions and went on to play the USA in the final. USA are undoubtedly the strongest team in the tournament, with most of their players being soccer scholars at colleges or universities or playing semi-professional. Their head coach was also an ex-player of the USA women’s national team, so they have a lot of support and great team of coaches.”
“When you take into account the costs of training camps; food, travel, kit, accommodation on top of international competitions, each year we need many thousands of pounds,” says Stancliffe. “After every competition we are always back to square one, no funds and having to scrape whatever we can together.”
They were stunned over New Year when Jack Butland, the Stoke and England goalkeeper, made a donation of £5,000, with the brief and heartfelt explanation: “I’ve learnt a lot from major tournaments, experiences I’ll never forget, I’d love for you to experience the same!”
Congratulations to @GB_DeafFootball Women's team on winning the bronze medal in the World Cup⚽️???
Well done girls ??
— James Milner Charity (@JM7Foundation) July 1, 2016
Then a few days before the World Cup began, the squad needed another £5,000 to cover the rest of their costs – and James Milner came to the rescue, approving the payment while away on England duty in France. They have also had support from the likes of Wales legend Neville Southall and England Lionesses Casey Stoney and Lucy Bronze.
Perhaps more importantly, the crowdfunding campaign had incredible reach – raising awareness of the team and the tournament, and raising plenty of money as well. Some donors even went on to sponsor individual players’ kit too. Newsom is looking forward to thanking those who made it possible for her to join the squad. “Norwich City Community Sports Foundation were one of my sponsors so I’m planning on giving something back in terms of coaching or working with young footballers,” she says.
“For most of 2016 it’s been a cycle of work, train, social media and sleep,” says Stancliffe, who also headed up the fundraising. “But it’s all been worth it. I never in a million years thought we would be where we are now and it’s all down to social media. All it takes is one influential person to help and it sends social media in a frenzy.”
The support from the general public gave Stancliffe and her team additional impetus to succeed. “Of course our goal was to win the World Cup, but when you’ve suffered such heartbreak and then you have a chance of bringing home a medal, it’s a massive achievement,” she says. “A huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders after the hard graft for eight months of fundraising. It was a feeling of ‘we’ve done this for everyone at home’.”
World Deaf Football Championships @ Salerno, Italy.
GB Women won the bronze medallist vs Poland by 2-0. Congrats pic.twitter.com/XFSYKq907b
— Deaf Sports Awards (@dspyawards) July 5, 2016
That includes everyone she works with – because, of course, the squad are not full-time professionals. In her day job, Stancliffe is a school sports coach in Northamptonshire, and she is extremely grateful to her employer for arranging cover and allowing her to go to the World Cup. “I’ve had a lot of congratulations from everyone, especially in the schools I teach in,” she says. “The children love the medal and trophy. I hope it inspires them.”
With nearly a decade of international competition under her belt, Stancliffe now has four bronze medals in her trophy cabinet – this year’s medal hangs alongside ones from the Deaf World Championships 2008, the Deaf European Championships and the Deaflympics 2013. She estimates that representing her country has cost her a five-figure sum – forking out for training and travel amongst other expenses.
“Thankfully I have been supported by a lot of people and companies. Now I am at the point where I’m struggling, as asking the same people and companies for sponsorship doesn’t get me very far. There’s only so much they can give,” she says.
The same applies for the domestic season. Stancliffe plays for Northampton Town Ladies and as soon as she returned from Italy she was seeking a sponsor for 2016-17; the team were promoted last season so this campaign will cost players more, from registration fees to pitch hire.
She will also be joining up with the GB squad once a month as they prepare for the Deaflympics next year. However, UK Deaf Sport may yet decide not to send the team there – the tournament is scheduled to be held in Turkey, a country currently considered to be a security risk. If they do go, it will be a much greater financial burden than the World Cup – Stancliffe thinks that they will require around £50,000 to cover all their costs.
“I think we can win the Deaflympics,” she enthuses. “We need funding to build on the current squad we have. We need to train together properly and give players the opportunity to represent GB without that financial pressure. If this happens, we are going to be a force to be reckoned with.”