“The funniest thing that ever happened to me was on a flight with the national team, when I was given a seat right next to the emergency exit,” recalled Ecuador women’s national team coach Vanessa Arauz, the youngest person ever to take charge of a side at a FIFA Women’s World Cup™, in conversation with FIFA.com. “Before we took off a flight attendant came and asked me, for security reasons, if I was old enough to be seated there. You can imagine how much my players laughed at that.”
The 26-year-old Arauz earned her place in the record books at Canada 2015, when Ecuador played its first ever women’s world finals match against Cameroon on 8 June. A month after the tournament, where La Tri lost their three group games, she received a certificate confirming her achievement from The Guinness Book of Records.
A midfielder with Emelec in her playing days, Arauz quickly realised that her future lay in coaching and was determined to make her career goal a reality despite her young age. In 2011 she became the first Ecuadorian woman to earn a coaching badge and was rewarded for her efforts when she was appointed assistant coach with the senior women’s national team.
Two years later came the promotion she had been dreaming of, an opportunity she has seized with both hands, despite the challenge of coaching players who are her age and older. “It wasn’t easy to begin with. I look even younger than I am, so how I was going to have the authority I needed?” she acknowledged. “I came to understand, though, that getting their respect was more down to the work I did than my age or career path. I focused on trying to help each individual player and the team in general, and things have worked out.”
Under the microscope *
So what do her players make of being coached by someone so young? As captain Ligia Moreira – three years Arauz’s junior – told *FIFA.com, it took her a while to get used to the idea: “I knew her from before, and it was strange that she stopped being Vane and became our coach. People sometimes mistook her for one of us, which we thought was pretty funny.”
The defender added: “She’s always been easy to get on with because, deep down, she understands us. And we were always aware that she knew a lot about football. Results may have helped buy her some time and earn respect from people on the outside, but as far as we were concerned she always had that from us.”
Tri goalkeeper Shirley Berruz added her opinion: “It’s maybe because I’ve got a sister who’s the same age, but I never sat there thinking: ‘How is someone so young going to coach us?’” the 24-year-old told FIFA.com. “She spent a lot of time with us before taking over as coach and she made the most of that opportunity to reach out to us and tell us what she wanted. She’s dealt with a lot of situations better than quite a few of my previous coaches.”
“I’ve never thought about the age difference,” said Monica Quinteros, the scorer of the goal that gave Ecuador a historic world finals’ play-off win against Trinidad and Tobago. At 27, the striker was one of six players senior to Arauz at Canada 2015: “I’ve always had the same respect for Vanessa as for the rest of my coaches. Maybe it’s because she’s a woman and the same age as us that she understands what we go through, which makes me feel that we have a very close relationship.”
Only on one occasion since taking over has Arauz’s age been an issue: “The team needed some big results at the Copa America Femenina in Ecuador and people started questioning me because of my age. They weren’t taking me seriously and they treated me like a little girl.
“I had to grow up quickly. If I hadn’t learned to deal with the pressure, then the team might have lost their nerve too. We made it to the World Cup play-off though, which gave me a bit more stature.”
Looking to the future
Though powerless to prevent her side going down to heavy defeats to Cameroon and Switzerland and a narrow loss to eventual runners-up Japan, Arauz believes Canada 2015 was a huge learning curve for her: “I reached conclusions that I wouldn’t have been able to get anywhere else, and I feel better prepared for the next World Cup qualifying competition.”
Canada 2015 also proved a rewarding experience for her in general, as she explained: “I spoke to a few coaches who all thought I'd be older than I actually was, almost looking upon me as a daughter or granddaughter. But after hearing me talk about football, though, they told me I had the soul of an old person.”
Though only too mindful of the barriers she has broken down despite her age, Arauz put her achievements into perspective: “The record is one thing that makes my career that bit more special, but more than anything else it’s lent more credibility to women’s football in Ecuador, which a lot of people feel doesn’t have much of a future. We’re trying to change that vision, and anything that helps with that is welcome.”