Martinez: I've won the laughing boys over

  • Milagros Martinez is the first woman to coach a men’s team in Japan

  • Opportunity came her way after many years in Spanish women’s football

  • Won her first title as a coach in her second season with Suzuka Unlimited

Milagros Martinez’s first thought was to give it all up. After devoting half her life to women’s football with her beloved Fundacion Albacete – first as a player, then as a coach in Spain’s second and top tiers, and latterly as the head of the club’s academy – she was told there was no longer a position for her. The news came as a bitter blow. Her phone stayed silent in the days and weeks that followed, adding to the hurt.

“I’d spent three years coaching in the Primera Division and I didn’t get a single offer in Spain,” said Martinez. Deciding to take action, she updated her social media pages, sent her CV here, there and everywhere, and waited for the phone to ring. And when at long last it did, the call came from Japan.

“It all happened so quickly,” she said with a smile. The club on the line were the semi-professional JFL side Suzuka Unlimited and their offer was one that Martinez was only too happy to accept.

“The worst thing was telling my mother,” she said, laughing. “I thought to myself, ‘She’s not going to take this well at all’. But she told me not to come back!”

Thirteen days later Martinez was on a flight to Japan, which is where caught up with her. Since touching down in January 2019 and making history as the first woman to coach a Japanese men’s team, she has become something of a celebrity.

“When I’m out and about in Tokyo people stop me for selfies,” said the Spanish coach, who is now in her second season with the club. “And there’s a girl in the south of Japan who sends me gifts every month. She just came to see a game one day and told me that she wanted to be a coach. It’s things like that that make you appreciate what you’re doing.”

Milagros Martínez, coach of Suzuka Unlimited

Lost in translation but happy with life

The language barrier has made life a little harder for her, though she now has an interpreter to help her out. “Imagine walking into a supermarket at the start, for example," she said. "And there have been lots of little surprises elsewhere too.”

Martinez has also experienced a culture shock on the pitch. “To begin with I’d walk into the dressing room and the boys would all start laughing or they’d be one of them apologising for not having a shirt on," she explained.

It was not long, though, before she was just another member of the team: “I’d ask them about their families and their jobs. They were really surprised. I try to speak to two or three of them every day and that’s how I’ve won them over.”

Her Saturday training sessions, which feature a game or activity that brings the team together, have also gone down well with her players. A couple of them are so impressed by her methods, in fact, that they have started taking coaching courses.

📚 The Martinez playbook

The quest for tactical discipline:

“When it comes to technique, they’re amazing players. You put them in a circle and they can go for 20 minutes without the guy in the middle getting a touch. The thing is, they find it harder to go and do that on the pitch when they’re up against it, and that’s where we have the most problems in a tactical sense. During the week I try to focus on tactics but without driving them mad.”

Curb their enthusiasm:

“I have to stop them sometimes. We train for an hour and 45 minutes and then they go off for a run because they say they’re not tired enough.”

4-4-2 and pace up front:

“We tried to switch to a 4-3-3 to start off with but we went back to 4-4-2 to get the most out of the players we’ve got. When I came in they played a very direct game, but now we try to make the most of the speed of our forwards, who are so quick. We also try to keep hold of the ball more.”

Milagros Martínez, coach of Suzuka Unlimited

🏆 A maiden title

COVID-19 has disrupted competitions the world over, Japan included. Martinez and her charges have racked up more than 100 training sessions this season but only a handful of matches, though that has not stopped them from winning the Mie Prefecture Cup, part of the Emperor Cup and the first trophy of her coaching career.

Reflecting on that maiden success, she said: “I’m delighted, I have to say. After so many training sessions and no games it just feels great, especially because it was a derby and we’d lost on penalties to the same team last year.” The next round of the competition starts on 16 September.

Milagros Martínez, coach of Suzuka Unlimited

💪 New opportunities

Though she could not be happier at Suzuka Unlimited, Martinez is hoping to show what she can do in Spain one day, or somewhere closer to home at least.

“It’s like doing a Master’s degree week after week because you learn so much," she said. “I’d like to move a little closer to Spain, though, and maybe coach in Europe.

"Getting to grips with another type of football is really rewarding. I’d love to coach a national team, for example, or even work as an assistant to someone.”

Though she sees herself as a pioneer, Martinez hopes there will come a time when she is just one of many female coaches and that women will find it easier and easier to find work in the elite, in both the men’s and women’s games.

“What we need is for one of us to get the chance, to be ready for it and for things to work out,” she said. “That’ll make everything easier.”

Having broken down one barrier already, Martinez is hoping to kick down a few more.