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Europe’s new football coach — she’s got balls!

(Published in The Malay Mail on 18 May 2014)

I’m not, of course, suggesting that she actually has balls, but more that someone else has had the balls, to give someone who doesn’t possess balls in the literal sense, a job for which one must definitely have balls (both of the courage and dangly type).

Have I lost you in all this ball talk?

Stay with me, because something very special has just happened in the male-dominated, testosterone filled world of football: Helena Costa, 36, is to become the first woman to coach a men’s upper-tier football team in one of Europe’s five major professional leagues (England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain).

That France, where sexism is said to be alive and kicking, should break the mould is astonishing. And you can’t get a more provincial and conservative town than Clermont-Ferrand in central France, whose second-division club Clermont Foot 63 Costa will take over as manager later this month. The club’s visionary president Claude Michy was said to be genuinely surprised by the level of interest in Costa’s hiring because: “There are lots of women in important positions, heads of government, or team managers in Formula One.”

Lots. Really? I’d say there’s nowhere near enough.

I liked Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger’s take on it: “Men manage women, why should women not manage men?” “It happens to us all at home.” Ha! He’s not wrong there.

Nor is his general view on life: “The only thing I was always a big defender of in my life, is to defend competence. If you are competent, you get the job anywhere.”

So, Costa got the job because she is competent, although Wenger was careful to premise this statement with a question mark over whether she has enough coaching experience under her belt.

Give the girl a break. Her path to the pitch looks pretty awesome to me even if, as she admits, her forte was never playing football; but you don’t need to be a highly accomplished player to be a successful coach (as Portuguese José Mourinho, one of her role models, and Wenger have shown us).

She spent 13 seasons coaching youth teams at Portugal’s leading club Benfica, scouted for the Scottish Premiership men’s club Celtic for three years and more recently, built the women’s national teams in Qatar and Iran. Costa describes her Qatar experience as culturally challenging, and her time in Iran personally challenging: “Because I had to be covered, all my hair and my arms, and for me it was a new thing.”

Sounds like this lady is no stranger to challenges, and challenge she will have handling 11 plus of Clermont Foot’s finest, who were said to be surprised, bordering on shock, at Costa’s appointment.


French second division club Clermont on May 7, 2014 named Portugal’s Helena Costa as coach, making her the highest-level woman running a men’s team in a major European championship. Costa, 36, is known in her home country as “Mourinho in a skirt” and has established a reputation as coach of the women’s national sides in Qatar and Iran. — Picture by AFP

But what do I know? Well, not much, although as of this year, I too coach… hauling myself out of bed crack of dawn on a Saturday morning to shout instructions to my son’s school football team “The American Section Minis”. I got bored watching from the sidelines in the rain with the other mums, and was also quietly bolstered by my experience, admittedly in my late 20s, of playing in a ladies-5-a-side football league in central London. Why not?

I asked David Catton head coach of the American Section Minis, what he thought of Costa’s appointment: “My view is that it’s ‘about time’ we have had a female coach on the scene.”

“Coaching has become so technical, each coach having a team of strategists and technicians behind them, that the day of one, dominating know-it-all coach who ruled by instilling fear into the hearts and souls of players (and being male might lend itself more easily to doing this), is a distant memory.” Charismatic coaches are always more successful; and there is no reason why a woman cannot be one of them,” Catton added.

Helena Costa has “always dreamed of this” and told reporters: “I opened a door today and more women will walk through on my back. That’s what I hope.” Like all successful women who have managed to prize open the door to positions predominately the preserve of men, you just know she’s going to have to prove herself big time, as everyone will be watching, waiting for mistakes to be made, the media ready with their “I told you so” commentaries.

Costa doesn’t have balls, but she’s going to have to be pretty damn ballsy.

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