In two and a half months’ time, when the action gets underway at the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2011™ in Germany, the spotlight is bound to fall on six special individuals. In all likelihood, six of the 16 teams at the finals will be coached by women, indicative of the fast-growing trend towards female head coaches in recent years. What was once a rare occurrence is now increasingly commonplace at the highest levels of the women’s game.
England will be guided and managed by Hope Powell. Back in 2003, the 44-year-old became the first woman to earn a UEFA Pro Licence. As for the host nation, the FIFA Women’s World Cup holders come under the aegis of Silvia Neid, Powell’s senior by two years, and winner of the inaugural FIFA Women’s Coach of the Year award last January. Norway’s Eli Landsem is 49 and took the hot seat with the 1995 world champions just short of two years ago, becoming the first female boss in Gresshoppene history. And north American giants USA and Canada will be led in Germany by Swedish supremo Pia Sundhage (51), Ngozi Uche of Nigeria (38) and Italian strategist Carolina Morace (45) respectively.
These six are spearheading a new generation of female head coaches, following in the footsteps of renowned trailblazers such as Tina Theune, April Heinrichs, Elisabeth Loisel and Marika Domanski-Lyfors. Without the pioneering efforts and frequent battles fought by their predecessors, today’s top bosses, such as FIFA Women’s World Cup winning supremo Neid, or Sundhage and her FIFA/Coca-Cola Women’s World Ranking chart-toppers, would struggle to perform their duties with such poise, individual style and confidence in their own footballing philosophies.
But what are the strengths required of a woman in the top coaching job? "The quality of a coach has nothing to do with his or her gender. However, as a woman, it’s extremely difficult to find a coaching job. I was lucky to be able to work in China, Norway and now the US. Not all my colleagues have had the same opportunities,” Sundhage recently declared in a FIFA.com exclusive interview: "One thing I would say is that only a woman who has overcome all the obstacles in her path knows what it means to play at this high level. It’s not for me to say whether that makes us better coaches."
Marta Tejedor also feels that female bosses may have a psychological advantage when dealing with female players. The Spaniard coaches the Chile women’s national team, and although the up-and-coming South Americans will not be in Germany this time round, she has been a driving force in unprecedented numbers of girls and women taking up the world’s favourite sport in the Andean nation. "You’re better able to identify with the players, and your mutual trust is based on different foundations, especially when there are difficult matters to discuss,” she exclusively informed FIFA.com.
Almost without exception, operating at the highest levels involves a number of compromises for the players, as Tejedor underlines: "We’re talking about the challenge of combining football with your studies, or football and family responsibilities. You have to understand and appreciate the huge demands placed on your players." However, the Spaniard is convinced that quality as a coach in women’s football has very little to do with gender. "I just don’t believe it’s a key factor. In my opinion, the question isn’t 'man or woman?' It's about being very well prepared and professional."
Theune, who would mastermind Germany’s ascent to the pinnacle of the world game and coach her national team to glory at USA 2003, made her views clear some 15 years ago in a remarkable interview with respected journal Die Zeit. "I believe the players have become more confident, and more feminine too." Even then, she detected a few fundamental differences: "In the course of the 90 minutes, women will tend to emphasise decent passing and team play," whereas men “favour flat-out pace and crunching tackles.”
Not all men are the same, of course. Mexico coach Leonardo Cuellar and Sweden boss Thomas Dennerby are just two examples of men with long-term commitment, passion and track records in the women’s game. And Tom Sermanni, the Scottish-born boss of Australia's Matildas, is widely regarded as the architect of a quantum leap in the development of the game Down Under. Back in the early days, Gero Bisanz laid the foundations for Germany’s later success in a lengthy stint as the nation’s first women’s national team coach from 1982 to 1996.
However, as everyone connected with football knows, at the end of the day it is results that count. Of the five FIFA Women’s World Cup winning teams to date, the last two were coached by women. Only time will tell whether Germany 2011 ends with a female boss hoisting the glittering trophy into the Frankfurt night sky on 17 July.