Chan: I'm touched to be an inspiration to other women

  • Chan Yuen Ting was the first woman to lead a men’s side to a top-tier pro title

  • She discusses idolising David Beckham and learning from Corinne Diacre

  • Chan wants to coach at the FIFA Women's World Cup

Chan Yuen Ting is nothing if not a trailblazer. In 2015 she became the first woman to coach a top-tier men’s team in a professional championship, before having another first the following year by leading the team to the national league title. Then in 2017 she became the first woman to coach a men's side in a continental club competition, namely the AFC Champions League.

To mark International Women's Day, spoke at length with the coaching prodigy, who is currently in charge of China PR’s U-16 women’s team. The conversation underlined the 32-year-old’s humility, in recalling her considerable achievements to date; her intelligence, when discussing women’s place in Asian culture; and her respect, when talking about role models and mentors like David Beckham and Corinne Diacre. Chan, five years ago, at the age of just 27, you became the first female coach to win a national first division championship with a men's team. Does the role of pioneer suit you?

Chan Yuen Ting: Honestly, my appointment as coach of Eastern SC in 2015 came as a big surprise to me. It was a dream that came true when I wasn’t expecting it. I made a conscious effort not to let it go to my head in those early days, and I think I managed to maintain a degree of humility with respect to the appointment. I was still learning and was a long way from considering myself a good coach. Everything was a challenge, and so thoughts of a league title were not even on my radar. In the end we went on to win it, but I have to admit that, even to this day, I have moments when I wonder if I dreamt it all (laughs).

Many considered you a heroine for what you achieved…

I read here and there descriptions of my what I did as a 'miracle' or 'heroic feat', but I don't see it that way at all. I was just very fortunate to be entrusted with coaching a high-quality team. Of course, it was unheard of for a female coach to win such a trophy with a men's side, but my role in that title success was secondary. It is the players who are on the front line, so the credit goes to them first and foremost.

Head coach Chan Yuen Ting poses for a picture with the trophy after guiding Eastern S.C. to the 2016 season Hong Kong Premier League title. (Courtesy of Eastern S.C.)

That title success must have been the proudest moment of your bourgeoning career?

(Pauses) Unquestionably. I often think back to that season and what I went through that year. Although I don't like to blow my own trumpet, that title success generated a lot of media attention, and I’ve been told that I may have been an inspiration to other women. And that’s perhaps what I find most touching. That said, I'm still a young coach so hopefully my crowning achievement is still to come!

Did your life change much after that title?

Yes, because it gave me the opportunity to then participate in the AFC Champions League. Were it not for that tournament, I’d never have acquired the maturity I did. Going up against the continent’s finest was an incomparable experience, despite not being particularly successful for us. I learned a lot from those heavy defeats, even if they really sapped my morale at the time. I think I had to go through that. It puts you back in your place – that of a small-time coach with work still to do. Most of all, though, it motivates you to go even further.

You said you may have inspired other women, but who inspired you?

I started football because of David Beckham! When I was 13, I only had eyes for him, so I started watching Manchester United games. As I grew to like it, I began watching more Premier League matches and then more games in general. Clearly it was David Beckham who started this journey. He’s been extremely influential in my life, even though we’ve never met. But I’ve not given up hope that it’ll finally happen one day (laughs).

What about women?

Corinne [Diacre] is a female coach who’s inspired me enormously. We first came together through the FIFA Mentorship programme. She’s taught me a lot. Seeing her coaching at the 2019 Women's World Cup was very impressive. She did a great job, even if fortune didn’t favour France in the end. That just further fuelled my already-fervent goal of participating in a World Cup.

Corinne Diacre and Yuen Ting Chan, part of the FIFA Coach Mentorship Programme

What memories do you have of the FIFA Coach Mentorship Programme?

It was really a nice experience for me. I had the opportunity to spend a week in Clairefontaine, and it was extremely informative in terms of infrastructure and training. I could see first-hand what was involved in managing a top international team. I’ll never forget that week. As for Corinne, we kept in touch and send each other regular messages. She always gives such good advice and is the perfect mentor.

Like you, Corinne Diacre has also coached a men's team (Clermont), but it’s still an opportunity very few women are afforded...

I’m lucky enough to come from Hong Kong, where both sexes are on an equal footing. But that’s far from the case in some parts of Asia. In many countries on my continent, women still don’t have the same rights as men. It’s very difficult to break with these traditions. Historically, football is a men's sport. However, I have the impression it’s more balanced elsewhere, especially in Europe, where women's football has developed enormously in recent years. Because of that, I expect we’ll see more women taking charge of men's teams there. At the last Women's World Cup, seven of eight quarter-finalists were European. The women’s game there has the wind in its sails.

You’re now coach the China PR Women's U-16 team. Do you prefer coaching men or women and what’s the difference?

In terms of enjoyment, it's the same. As I see it, a good coach should have the ability to adapt, regardless of the gender, age or experience of his or her players. Those considerations should not be an impediment. However, how you approach the task is inevitably different. At Eastern, I was managing professional, experienced men, so I wasn’t going to be coaching them on how to take corners. Above all, my role there was to create a team and a strategy based on the intrinsic qualities of each of the players at my disposal. Conversely, with China PR, I have more of an instructional role with the players, who can struggle to make decision for themselves and who still prefer to be dictated to on and off the field. With professionals, the priority is the result, whereas with young people it's development.

Chan Yuen Ting coach of eastern long lions football team from Hong Kong

When you were 16, did you realise you had the skills to be the sucessful coach you’ve became?

No. When I was 16, I didn't really know what I wanted. I was just starting my studies and just knew I loved football. Unfortunately for me, that wasn't one of the main subjects I was studying at school. In fact, I first graduated in geography. Very soon, however, I got with the idea of combining my passion and career, without really knowing how to do it. I then took courses in sports science and health management, which led to my first job in the world of football – at Hong Kong Pegasus FC – in the role of data analyst. Then, bit by bit, I moved into coaching.

Among the 16-year-olds you’re working with today, can you already spot those with the potential to be good coaches in the future?

In some players, I see a certain mentality, personality and penchant for leadership – some of the qualities you need to be a good coach. But unless they ask me for help in going down this road, I won’t be advising them to pursue this. They have to find their own way.

How do you see your career in five years’ time?

You can never tell. A coach's life is full of uncertainty as it is dictated by results. But like every coach, I'm ambitious, so I hope to be able to work at an even higher level. In any case, I’d like it to be away from Hong Kong, as foreign experiences are excellent for development.

KAWASAKI, JAPAN - MAY 09:  Chan Yuen Ting,coach of Eastern SC looks on during the AFC Champions League Group G match between Kawasaki Frontale and Eastern SC at Kawasaki Todoroki Stadium on May 9, 2017 in Kawasaki, Japan.  (Photo by Masashi Hara/Getty Images)

Your favourite female coach? It's obviously Corinne.

Your favourite male coach? I love Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp. Their style is different from other coaches. Guardiola has revolutionised football in tactical terms, as for Klopp I particularly like his personality.

Your dream club to coach? Manchester United. It all began for me with that club, and I'm still a fan today.

The female player you'd most like to have in your team?" No one player, but I’d love to coach a Japanese side. I like their mentality and the way football is played there. It's quite refreshing.

The male player you'd most like to coach? Can I coach David Beckham? (laughs) Failing that, I'd be happy if I could be in charge of the Hong Kong men’s team one day."

Head coach Chan Yuen Ting is tossed by players after Eastern S.C. win the 2016 season Hong Kong Premier League title. (Courtesy of Eastern S.C.)

This article is part of our series focused on women’s football, and women in football, to celebrate International Women’s Day 2021. To find out more about FIFA’s Women’s Football Strategy and Development Programmes, and to read more articles like this, click here.