Marika Domanski-Lyfors has had a long and distinguished coaching career, including stints guiding the Sweden (1996-2005) and China PR (2007) women's national teams, and as the technical director of both men’s and women’s football from 2007 to 2011 at the Swedish Football Association (SvFF), where she is now the head of the Women’s Elite Department, responsible for all national teams from youth to seniors. Having worked with male and female footballers alike, she insists there are more similarities than differences in the two forms of the game.
“As you get higher into the elite category, there are nearly no differences in terms of attitude from the players," she told FIFA World. "They know what is needed to become an elite athlete and so their attitude is very professional. In some areas I would say that female players can sometimes be too serious. Occasionally it is good to relax and just enjoy the moment.
"Another thing is that women always seem to want to know why they are being asked to do something, while men just get on with it. That’s not to say one attitude is better than the other - sometimes it is good just to act and not overthink, and at other times it is good to ask questions!
"Emotionally I think that you can find as many differences from one man to another, or from one woman to another, as there are between men and women in general. What’s important is to get to know the players you are working with. After that you can ascertain their strengths and find a way of playing that suits the type of players you have.
"Obviously there are physical differences between men and women. There are differences of strength, which you see in particular when it comes to tackling. Speed is a difference too, but there is not so much difference in the relative changes of speed."
"Theoretically, this means female players should not have any problem dictating the speed of matches in the same way as the men do. But in practice, my own experience has shown that this is still a problem for many women’s teams. Germany are a notable exception - I think they are the best women’s team in the world in this aspect.
"When it comes to tactical understanding, I think male and female players are pretty even off the field, but when it comes to making decisions in the middle of a game, the men still seem to have the edge. Technically, I think there are many top women players who are just as skilful as the men. But there are more players with those good technical abilities in the men’s game, which is why it’s perceived – wrongly – that men are naturally more gifted at football.
"I think that you see the on-field scenarios more clearly in the women’s game because there is less tackling than in the men’s version. Clearly you can enjoy both: appreciating the men’s matches with their high levels of intensity and good technical skills, and the women’s matches with technical and tactical skills that you can recognise more clearly.”
Like Domanski-Lyfors, Italy’s Carolina Morace has worked on different continents with professional players of both genders. Currently preparing for the FIFA Women’s World Cup as Canada coach, her previous posts have seen her take charge of her own country’s national women’s team as well as a short and much-publicised stint coaching Italian men’s side Viterbese in Serie C. The former international striker told FIFA World that, in her experience, the variations between national footballing cultures are often more pronounced than the differences between male and female players.
“I found much bigger variations between Italian women and Canadian women than I found between men and women in the same country," she said. "For example, in Italy, the women players are speaking all the time, whereas the Canadians hardly ever do.
"My players have always tried to act professionally, but sometimes this concept of ‘professionalism’ is not always properly understood. It is not about how much money players are paid, but more about how they care for their bodies. When I first came to Canada, we explained to the players the importance of nutrition and a properly thought-out training regime. They had to learn that a rest day is in fact a necessary component of training, that it is about quality rather than quantity. Over here, a lot of the players still labour under the misconception that more is better - it is very much part of the mentality that exists on this side of the world.
"One clear difference that does exist between male and female players across the world is that the males usually start to play football in a serious way much earlier than the females. Even at the age of four or five, boys are often attending football schools and learning the technical and tactical aspects of the game. They are therefore much more prepared than women for the demands of the elite game.
"Men are also faster, of course, and you can see in men’s matches that they have a much higher rate of ball possession. Their running is also more rational because they have that much more experience in the game.
"In the end, though, it is all about being competent regardless of whether you are male or female, particularly from a coaching point of view. I don’t think you need to be a man to coach men or a woman to coach women, with perhaps one exception. When it comes to young female players, I think it helps to have a female coach, because when a woman tells them they can do something it is more credible coming from someone with the same physical attributes.”
England’s Hope Powell is another successful player-turned-coach who has been busy readying her players for Germany 2011. Responsible not only for her country’s senior women’s side, but also for the development of the national female teams at all age grades, Powell began her coaching career in community football, working with both boys and girls. For her, the differences between the two groups mainly come down to psychology and attitude.
“Off the field, there is definitely more of a family atmosphere in women’s football, and women are also far more receptive to coaching. They recognise that they can always learn more, while men tend to think initially that they already know it all - it takes them a little bit more time to realise that they don't!
"I think men also show very little emotion in training, perhaps because they would see that as a sign of weakness. Women can go too far the other way, being too sensitive at times and often taking things personally.
"There are other differences, such as the better spatial awareness that you tend to see in men and particularly young boys. They see the ‘pictures’ of a game quicker, probably because they have had many more years of playing the game in an organised manner.
"On the field men will of course always be physically stronger and faster but the women’s game has improved significantly in this area, as has heading, which is still a weak area of women’s football. Otherwise I don’t see any differences technically. While the women’s game is slower, that gives more scope for skill, compared to the greater focus on physicality that we see in the men’s game.”
Finally, for a male perspective, FIFA World spoke to Tom Sermanni, the current coach of Australia’s national women’s team. Having coached women’s club sides in the USA and men’s teams in Japan and Australia, he cites three main aspects that distinguish women’s football from men’s.
He said: “For me, the key differences concern communication, team focus and self-responsibility. As far as communication is concerned, the manner, content and frequency with which a coach speaks to the team plays a much bigger role in the women’s game. Female players want feedback on a regular basis. They especially want information in relation to performance; areas in need of improvement and reinforcement on the positive aspects of their game. They also require reassurance at times when confidence is low. Female players will be more inclined to dwell on their weaknesses, while male players will confidently expound upon their strengths - even if these are only perceived.
"In terms of team focus, women tend to be more team-orientated and supportive of the team as a whole, whereas male players are primarily concerned about their own performances. In the right environment there is a far greater degree of genuine loyalty among female athletes.
"I would say that many of the elite female players also take on more self-responsibility than their male counterparts, perhaps because they are not usually full-time professionals or, even if they are, they are still only modestly paid. This means they have to juggle their other commitments outside of football, so they are often more responsible, with better organisational skills.
"Aside from those differences, however, there is little separating the men’s and women’s game. In relation to onfield physical, tactical and technical requirements, I don’t alter my demands or expectations depending upon the gender of my players. The expectations these days for elite female players are no different to male professional players. In fact the lack of fi nancial rewards in women’s football tends to produce an attitude that, ironically, can often be more professional.
"Similarly to how it is with the men, women’s football really is the world game. It is the only female team sport played in every part of the globe and I think every other team sport in the world must envy this great asset that we have.
"Overall I believe that the quality and entertainment value displayed in the women’s game has brought great credibility and acceptance of the sport among the whole football community. I think this will be highlighted in Germany this summer when the best teams come together in front of large, knowledgeable and appreciative crowds.”