Keira Walsh interview: Qatar a backwards step for women’s game, but I still hope to cheer England to World Cup glory

Keira Walsh interview: Qatar a backwards step for women’s game, but I still hope to cheer England to World Cup glory

Should England falter at this World Cup, you can bet your last Qatari Riyal that the post-mortem will include the now traditional lament of the country’s failure to produce a technically-gifted midfield conductor.

And when it does, it will be worth pointing out that, actually, we are blessed with just about the best on the planet — and she is already a European champion.

Keira Walsh, it is fair to say, has had quite the year, and to hammer home the point, we begin this interview with a simple question: when was the last time you lost a football match?

“Erm…” she hesitates, presumably rifling through a mental form book with few blemishes. “The FA Cup final?”

England arrive in Qatar for the FIFA World Cup 2022

(The FA via Getty Images)
(The FA via Getty Images)
(The FA via Getty Images)
(The FA via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)
(PA)
(PA)
(The FA via Getty Images)
(The FA via Getty Images)
(The FA via Getty Images)
(The FA via Getty Images)
(The FA via Getty Images)
(The FA via Getty Images)
(The FA via Getty Images)
(The FA via Getty Images)
(The FA via Getty Images)
(The FA via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)
(The FA via Getty Images)
(The FA via Getty Images)

Bingo. Walsh’s Manchester City side were beaten 3-2 in extra-time by Chelsea at Wembley on May 15 — a full six months ago. In fact, that game is one of only two Walsh has lost all year and plenty has happened since, including that European Championship triumph at the same stadium and then the transfer to Barcelona which fulfilled a childhood dream and made her the most expensive female player of all time.

All of which means that Walsh comes at this men’s World Cup from a rather different viewpoint to that from which she observed the last, when she was yet to truly establish herself in the senior side as Gareth Southgate’s men went close in Russia.

“I would’ve watched it more from a fan’s perspective,” she says. “Really getting into it — and if things weren’t going right, I’d probably switch the TV off or get angry.

“You don’t quite understand what the players are going through. Now, going through it myself and having won the Euros, you know what a feeling it was to bring the nation together, what a proud moment it was to be English. I probably am a bit more excited for the boys now. I hope they smash it.”

Walsh’s bullishness about England’s chances is prevalent throughout our conversation — she has them lifting the trophy and Harry Kane claiming another Golden Boot — but, like many, her enthusiasm is tempered by the storm of controversies surrounding Qatar’s status as hosts.

“If you’re looking at the human rights side and LGBTQ+, it’s not ideal hosting it in a country where not every fan will feel safe, where not every fan will feel able to go and feels comfortable,” says Walsh. “That’s the real negative side and those issues are still there: it’s a country that doesn’t support a lot of backgrounds, a lot of cultures.”

There is also the fact that FIFA, who next year will hope to surf a wave of momentum into their Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, have chosen this moment to take the men’s tournament to a country whose women’s team they have removed from their rankings because of inactivity. A functioning women’s team, Walsh believes, should be a prerequisite for any host nation.

“With the Lionesses, we do so much work on using our platform and our voices to push women’s sport and women’s football,” she says. “For us, it feels like a bit of a backwards step.

We’re talking about being supported and being treated the same as the men, but they’re playing in a country where the women’s team doesn’t really exist.

“We’re talking about being supported and being treated the same as the men, but they’re playing in a country where the women’s team doesn’t really exist. It’s really disappointing and we feel like we’re fighting for something that isn’t being replicated by FIFA.”

And then there are the logistics of a winter tournament and a run-in for Southgate’s side that could hardly be more different from the month-and-a-half that Sarina Wiegman had to prepare hers for the Euros. “The build-up period was so important,” she says.

“It’s not just about the technical and tactical side, it’s getting into the mindset as a team, working together each day. That massively contributed to our success, so when I saw that their build-up is seven or eight days, from a player’s view, that’s crazy.

“Would I want to be playing at a World Cup in winter? Probably not — it’s not got the same special feeling that a World Cup usually does.”

Lionesses celebrate reaching the Euro 2022 final in July. (The FA via Getty Images)
Lionesses celebrate reaching the Euro 2022 final in July. (The FA via Getty Images)

There is a determination, though, to reciprocate the support shown by England’s men towards their female counterparts last summer, after the teams mingled at St George’s Park and several, including Mason Mount and Phil Foden, attended the final at Wembley.

Walsh’s patriotism is turbocharged, too, by that familiar feeling of being an Englander abroad, with Barcelona’s changing room dominated by Spanish stars. “Even without football, I’m always arguing that England’s the best country!” she laughs.

“All they seem to say is that we’ve got good tea and good tap water, so I’m standing up for England on a daily basis!”

Has the usual World Cup fever caught on in Spain or, as in England, does the pre-amble feel somewhat low-key, I wonder? “Honestly, I wouldn’t know — I don’t really understand much!”

Walsh, it seems, will not be much cop as our temperature gauge for La Roja, but in every aspect bar the language (she is trying, with lessons every week), the 25-year-old is an emphatic Spanglophile.

Though raised in Rochdale, she grew up on a diet of La Liga with her Spanish football-obsessed father, who cajoled her into making the move when Barca came calling this summer.

She cites Spain’s success in 2010 as her formative World Cup memory — “seeing Xavi and Iniesta lift the trophy” — and finally strays from her England bias when nominating Pedri as her pick for player of this tournament. “I’ve watched a few of the men’s games at Camp Nou and he’s the standout player in every game,” she says.

While the World Cup is going on, Walsh will grace Camp Nou for the first time for a Champions League meeting with Bayern Munich and already this month has played in her first Clasico, Barca hammering Real Madrid 4-0.

“It was unbelievable,” she says. “You grow up watching that on the television: Busquets,” — midfielders’ union in effect again — “Messi, Ronaldo. For me to pull on that Barca shirt and step out against Real Madrid was a really special feeling.”

Away with England over the past fortnight, however, Walsh’s viewing habits have taken a rather different turn, with former teammate Jill Scott a contestant on ‘I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here’.

“A few of us have been watching in each other’s rooms and it’s fair to say she’s been the most entertaining and the most natural,” she says. “I’ve seen her more now than when I played with her - she’s everywhere!”

That suits just fine, however: as with Southgate’s men in the desert, Walsh believes Scott, in the jungle, can go the distance.