March was a momentous month for women’s football, as a host of current and former national coaches travelled to Home of FIFA in Zurich to take part in a major women's football instructors’ seminar.
The attendance list for the event from 20-23 March read like a who’s who of the women’s game. Established coaches like Tina Theune and April Heinrichs shared their experience with younger colleagues, and the other big-name participants included Hope Powell, Carolina Morace, Leonardo Cuellar and Uche Ngozi, all of whom featured at the FIFA Women’s World Cup™.
They joined Vera Pauw, Azzedine Chih, Jacqueline Shipanga, Chan Shuk Chi and Marta Tejedor in an absorbing panel discussion, describing their paths to the top of the national set-up, setting out their dreams for the game, and offering opinions on the development path required by a modern national coach.
FIFA.com took part in the discussion and presents a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes.
Keynote delivered from the heart
No less a figure than FIFA Women’s World Cup-winning coach Tina Theune introduced the panellists, taking the opportunity to divulge a few titbits about herself in the process. ”I’ve been asked to tell you something about myself which you can’t read on the internet,” she said with a smile on her face. “I’m the daughter of a minister and I have four sisters. My father was a good priest. He said: Women have two legs, why shouldn’t they play football?”
Hope Powell is the strongest evidence for the truth of this statement. She won her first cap for England at the tender age of 16, and in 1998 became the national team’s first full-time coach and the first woman to occupy the England women’s national team dugout. As Theune recounted: ”Hope once said that Bend It Like Beckham describes her career to perfection.”
Powell, now 45, added some detail to the story. ”I started playing organised football at the age of 11, when I found out I was actually not too bad and had a real passion for it. Very early on when I was at school I decided that I wanted to be a professional footballer. Unfortunately, at that time it was impossible for girls to turn pro.”
I’m the daughter of a minister and I have four sisters. My father was a good priest. He said: "Women have two legs, why shouldn’t they play football?”
From selfishness to great adventures
Despite the obstacles, Powell found a way of devoting her career to the women’s game - and the story of her battle to the top is a fascinating tale: “So I thought: How am I gonna stay in this game? As a coach! So it was a purely selfish reason,” she said with a grin. ”Along the way I decided to get as much coaching experience as I possibly could. I coached boys' teams, girls' teams, went to the US and tried to pick up as many qualifications as possible.”
It was only a matter of time until the English FA approached Powell to offer her the job as coach of the Three Lionesses. “I think I was a little bit in shock. I was only 31 and still playing. I really tried to be cool and played it down, but when I left the office, I was like: Oh my God! I can’t believe what they’ve done, they offered me the job. I was like: Should I take it? But then somebody made a good point. If you don’t take it, you might be still a player, sitting in the changing room and thinking: I could have done this job.”
As Azzedine Chih then explained, taking over the Algerian women's team fulfilled his greatest wish. “I think it’s everybody’s dream to coach at such a high level, to coach a national team. It was a great adventure and I had great moments of joy with the team. It’s a dream come true. And our careers are not over, we have still a lot to do.”
Development never ceases
This indeed was the crux of the gathering in Zurich. It is well known that coaches come and go, methods change and expectations rise. But what form of instruction does a modern national coach require?
“For me personally, the best education is playing and observing, and observing others work,” ventured Powell. “That gained me a good foundation, a good start to do what I’m now doing. The most important thing is that the education never stops.”
The increasing importance of sports science was brought up by the panel and extensively discussed, with topics ranging from modern GPS systems to heart monitoring. “Sports science is becoming more and more important in our sport,” US icon April Heinrichs added.
However, to join the elite and remain one of the genuine big names in the game requires a whole lot more besides. Sensitivity, expertise, leadership quality and experience are just a few of many attributes a coach requires.
As Heinrichs summarised: ”Sometimes we need to have a thick skin. There are a lot of people criticising you. One of my favourite bosses used to say: It’s a long road from the outhouse to the penthouse, but it’s a very quick drop. And it’s lonely up there. And I think that is right. Even if you are on the right track, if you’re just sitting there you will be run over. So keep moving.”