Nelfi Ibanez does not fit the profile of your traditional Bolivian mother. From an early age, she knew she was destined to achieve something great in a profession dominated by men.
“I got tired watching our national team lose games on TV, so I said to myself: ‘We can’t depend on these guys anymore; I’m going to learn how to do this myself.” It was this determination, which she looks back on now with a smile, that was the catalyst for a career that has proved as complicated as it has been successful.
In the face of discrimination in her homeland, Nelfi opted to begin her studies in Paraguay before carrying out her assistantship with FC Barcelona in Spain. Not content with meeting the likes of Frank Rijkaard and Lionel Messi, the Bolivian broadened her knowledge by taking a series of elite courses at the Association of Catalan Football as well as Barcelona’s Universidad de Montjuic.
“It wasn’t easy,” she said emphatically, but her hard work would eventually pay dividends. Following a spell in charge of the Bolivian women’s national team, Nelfi broke down another cultural barrier by becoming the first woman to coach a professional men’s side in Peru – the second division club Hijos de Acosvinchos.
FIFA.com chatted to Ibanez about the challenges faced in getting ahead in a male-dominated environment and how football has helped in her battle for equality of the sexes and equal opportunities for women.
FIFA.com: How hard was it to make a place for yourself in the men’s game in South America, and did you face discrimination along the way?
Nelfi Ibanez: Many believe that a woman has no right to be doing what I do, with the men considering themselves the owners of football. Me, I believe that with ability, sacrifice and dedication that we can prove otherwise. I’ve been discriminated against many times by my colleagues. Sometimes it’s just a look, other times a comment like ‘Why are you here?’, and sometimes a joke at your expense. I’d go as far as saying that some fitness coaches I’ve worked with have tried to take charge and undermine my authority.
What did you do in those instances?
I relieved them of their positions. I have no problem letting people go where necessary. It’s not something l enjoy doing, of course, but I have my character and I believe that job definitions and boundaries have to be respected.
Where did this occur?
In Bolivia when I first started studying, I felt discriminated against. That’s why I went straight to Paraguay, where doors opened to allow me to begin my training. I’ll always be very grateful for that.
You often say that you’ve had to work for everything you’ve achieved so far, but do you think it has been tougher because you’re a woman?
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that. I think that you have to make a distinction, as in the women’s game being a woman really helped me. Some male colleagues even said to me that they’d had to wait many years before taking charge of a women’s national team, whereas I had that opportunity relatively quickly. But in the men’s game yes, I have sometimes noticed the difference, such as when dealing with certain teams or when it took people a long time to return my calls. That used to make me wonder if it was happening to me because I was a woman.
And what about in the wider game in general? Do people in men’s football show you respect?
A lot of them find it hard to get to grips with the fact that a woman’s in charge. During matches, when tensions are running high, I’ve had fans shout stuff at me like 'you’re not subbing him because he’s your boyfriend', things like that. But I see that as par for the course during a match, not as discrimination. Fortunately, as time’s gone by, I’ve been getting more and more praise from a variety of people for the way I set my teams out. That really means a lot to me.
What are the most common preconceptions you find yourself facing?
Well, for many journalists, the million-dollar question always seems to be about how I behave in a dressing room full of men. As if that mattered! Yes, of course sometimes players walk past naked after having a shower, but that’s normal in a dressing room. But I’m very professional and that’s how I behave, it’s all part of the job. The only thing that matters to me is what my teams do out on the pitch, so the only contact I have with them is a handshake and a pat on the back if they’ve had a good game.
What would you say to those who discriminate against women in football?
That they’ve got very small brains. We women are just like any other human being, and we’re capable of carrying out any role. There are no rules to say the opposite. But, rather than focus on men who are prejudiced, I’d rather send out a message to all women, telling them to follow their dreams and to fight to achieve them. There will always be obstacles along the way, but with ability and hard work you can overcome them. We have to use our intelligence and not any of our other attributes. It’s what I’ve done so far and it’s worked for me. Not for nothing are there major South American nations with female presidents.
How can football help in the fight against discrimination?
It can play a big part. Personally, I’m doing my bit by showing that women can go far in a world that many believe to be a men’s domain. I’ve reached a level no other woman has achieved and that’s a really big contribution. But I’m not going to rest on my laurels - I know that I can go further. My dream is to take charge of a senior national team at a [FIFA] World Cup and I think that one day I’ll make it happen.