Wednesday 22 February 2017 will be a special day for the Asian Football Confederation (the organisers of the AFC Champions League), reigning Hong Kong champions Eastern Long Lions and their coach Chan Yuen Ting. It is a day that will see Eastern make their first appearance in the prestigious continental competition since it was revamped, having taken part in it 20 years ago, while for her part, Chan will become the first woman to coach a men’s team in a continental club tournament.
On the eve of her side’s opening 2017 AFC Champions League group match against China PR’s Guangzhou Evergrande – one of the favourites to lift the trophy – the intrepid young coach gave an exclusive interview to FIFA.com. Looking ahead to the occasion, she said: “I never thought I’d find myself in such a big competition. Last year was fantastic for everyone here. I didn’t think that the players would take me so far, but we're on the way to making our dreams come true. My job now is to coach the team as best I can in the competition.”
As well as the Chinese giants, Eastern will be coming up against two other Asian big guns in the group phase of the competition: Suwon Samsung Bluewings of Korea Republic and Japan’s Kawasaki Frontale. Sizing up the opposition, Chan commented: “We knew before the draw was made that we’d be facing some big teams from Japan, China, South Korea or Australia. I think they’re all stronger than the clubs in Hong Kong. We know that there’s a gulf between us, but we’ll be giving it everything we’ve got. We can’t wait for the group phase to start.
“All the matches will be tough for us because we know that Eastern are not as strong as their opponents. Nothing is impossible in football, though. We’re well prepared and we’re ready for these games. We’ve analysed our opponents and come up with game plans for them. I want my players to show their mental strength and technique on the pitch.”
The only woman involved in the competition, Chan will be stepping out against none other than Luiz Felipe Scolari, Guangzhou’s Brazilian coach. “Everyone knows that Scolari is a great coach who’s won the World Cup with Brazil,” she said. “I’m going to talk to him when I meet him. I want to learn from him on the pitch because he has a lot of experience.”
I’m happy to be a role model for other female coaches. I’m ready to lend a helping hand to anyone who’s thinking of getting into coaching.
So what thoughts will be going through Chan’s head when she comes up against such an experienced opposite number? Will she be adopting the tactics used by some of her role models on the global scene? Answering those questions, the confident coach said: “I have a few coaches I look up to but I don’t copy the philosophy of people like Jurgen Klopp, Jose Mourinho or Antonio Conte. I respect all the great coaches and their achievements at the highest level, but they all have their own personalities and philosophy. I have my own method, one that is tailored to what my team is capable of and to the matches we have to play.”
And what of the pressure Chan has faced since steering her side to the domestic title last season, a landmark achievement that saw her make headlines around the world. “It was a very fulfilling year for me,” she replied. “I gave a lot of interviews, which perhaps created a bit of pressure, though that’s all part and parcel of a coach’s job. I try to avoid the trap created by negative pressure by just focusing on my job.”
Her story is a potential source of inspiration for any woman looking to coach a men’s team but who is perhaps put off by the obstacles involved: “I’m happy to be a role model for other female coaches. There’s no professional women’s league in Hong Kong, which is what we need if we’re going to progress. I’m ready to lend a helping hand to anyone who’s thinking of getting into coaching.”
All eyes will be on Chan and her Eastern charges over the six matchdays of the 2017 AFC Champions League group phase. Yet, no matter how the Hong Kong side fare, there is no question that this fearless coach is making her mark on the game.