Silvia ‘Sissy’ Raith has had just under two and a half years to prepare Azerbaijan’s team for the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup, which is set to kick off in their own backyard on 22 September. It has been a rocky path for the 58-time German international since taking charge in May 2010, with initially no leagues and no players at her disposal.
“I actually started with less than zero because the girls had no idea about football,” Raith told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview. “They might have seen the odd game or two on television, but they’d never played it themselves.
“We started out travelling around the country looking for talented and interested girls,” the 52-year-old said. “We went to schools and asked teachers ‘where do they play football in physical education lessons? Where might there be a girl who occasionally goes to training?’ The word started to spread and we discovered girls here and there who were interested and whose parents allowed them to play.”
Yet interest alone was not enough to qualify for Azerbaijan’s national side. Accompanied by a small team, Raith visited the remotest corners of the country to lead training sessions in order to get a feel for her new task.
“During training we were looking out for talent as well as the right physical requirements. If both conditions were present, we would ask the girl along. I invited 50 girls to the first course and in the end 34 turned up,” the two-time European champion said of her first extraordinary scouting missions.
“It’s not easy because it’s not something embedded in their culture. Azerbaijan has very good chess players or individual athletes, like wrestlers or martial arts experts, but team sports, especially those involving a ball, are not as common - especially for girls. Two years ago there was nothing, absolutely nothing.”
The former Germany international cut her teeth as a coach from 2002 to 2008 with Women’s Bundesliga side Bayern Munich. In 2009 she moved on to her hometown club TSV Eching and earned promotion into the regional leagues with the men’s team. The Azerbaijan Football Association had clearly done their homework when they recruited Raith to her current post.
“When Azerbaijan were chosen as hosts, the role the general secretary described to me was created. He visited me in Munich. It was crazy the way he explained how they were given the U-17 World Cup without having any leagues, no girl’s football, nothing. I thought to myself: That sounds right up your street. It’s so crazy, I have to take it,” Raith said of her decision.
Since that first meeting, Raith has achieved an incredible amount for girl’s football in Azerbaijan. In her relatively short tenure so far, an U-15 and an U-17 league have been established, while a national team for the latter category has also been formed. Nevertheless, the amicable Bavarian is well aware that her side are absolute outsiders going into the tournament on home turf.
“We’re going up against the best 15 teams in the world and we’re the underdogs against all of them. Anyone who looks at the background of women’s football in Azerbaijan knows that. If we want to do well on 22 September [against Colombia] then we need everything to come together for us. We need to play out of our skins and let the crowd carry us,” Raith said.
“We’ll also need a big slice of luck in order to get a positive result. It’ll be really tough against Nigeria and Canada. Physically they’ll have the advantage over us and we’ll need a small miracle to compete with them. But then again, miracles are always happening in football. We’ll have to wait and see.”
With the tournament just days away, Raith’s sense of anticipation, as well as that of the whole country, is increasing steadily. “There’s a lot of hype over here. It’ll be a three week party, the likes of which an U-17 World Cup has maybe never seen before. The city will spruce itself up as they say. The people who come to Baku or Azerbaijan will be enthralled, I’m sure of it. And I’m really looking forward to it,” the former defender concluded.
One thing is certain before a ball has even been kicked: fans can expect a truly special tournament.