Sunday, January 21, 2018
Sports

A soccer first: Female coach leads men to a top pro title

A combination of David Beckham and the Japanese women's national team inspired one of the most unlikely title wins in the history of modern soccer.

That wouldn't be the 5,000-to-1 triumph in England's Premier League that Leicester City celebrated this month, but Chan Yuen-ting's becoming the first female coach to lead a men's soccer team to a professional top-flight league championship.

Chan, 27, fell in love with soccer as a schoolgirl in Hong Kong, partly because of Beckham, but Japan's win at the 2011 Women's World Cup has proved to be a bigger influence.

"That was amazing for us in Asia," Chan said in a telephone interview. "That inspired me. We all watched, and I knew the way I wanted my team to play."

Her Eastern Sports Club team closed out its season Saturday but had already clinched the Hong Kong Premier League championship with a 2-1 win over South China on April 22. "When the referee blew the final whistle, I felt I was dreaming," Chan said. "It was unbelievable. Reporters came to me, took pictures and asked questions. I was still nervous and couldn't smile."

There are nine professional teams in the men's league but no such competition for women. That prompted Chan, whose parents wanted her to pursue a more traditional career, to start coaching early. She started in 2010 as a video analyst for Pegasus, another Hong Kong club. In 2015, she led the club's under-18 team to the youth league championship.

Eastern's previous head coach departed in December, and Chan, then an assistant coach at the club, was promoted, as she was the only member of the coaching staff with a coaching license from the Asian Football Confederation.

Chan may have been the most qualified, but there were doubts. "I asked the club, 'Is this a good decision?' I worried about my lack of experience," she said. "I didn't want to bring trouble to the team, but they have really supported me and trusted me."

Her first game was a 6-1 victory, and seven more victories came in the following nine matches. She has become a minor celebrity in the region, according to Mark Sutcliffe, the chief executive of the Hong Kong Football Association.

"Eyebrows were raised when Ms. Chan was appointed, but I wasn't surprised. She had been successful at youth level," Sutcliffe wrote in an email. "Football remains male-dominated, and it takes a special person and a forward-thinking club to break the mold. We will know when true equality has been achieved when stories like this are no longer newsworthy."

That may take some time, given the lack of women coaching men in sports. In 2015, Nancy Lieberman was appointed as an assistant with the Sacramento Kings, the second woman to join the coaching staff of an NBA team after Becky Hammon at the San Antonio Spurs. In Japan, Natalie Nakase was head coach of Saitama Broncos in the country's pro league before returning to the United States in 2012 to work as a video coordinator for the Los Angeles Clippers.

It is similar in soccer. Shelley Kerr is in charge of Stirling University FC in the fifth tier of the Scottish league system. In 2014, Clermont Foot in France's second tier appointed Helena Costa, a Portuguese woman, as head coach, but she quit after a month, saying there had been a lack of respect from the club. She was replaced by another female coach, Corinne Diacre.

"I think it is possible for more women to work in men's football, and if this success helps, then I will be very happy," Chan said. "It's an important step for women in football. Once I took over as the head coach, lots of reporters said, 'You are a female coach and you are only 27.' It doesn't matter if I am female or male, young or old. The important thing is that I have to do my job well. If the team can't get results, then you have a problem."

The results were there. The win in her opener helped make the transition smooth. "At the beginning, perhaps the players were a little confused," she said. "I was nervous and stressed, and I paid a lot of attention to the first week of training. But the players never challenged me or asked why I was head coach. They knew the situation, showed a professional attitude. They encouraged me all the way."

With the title won, the immediate plan is to stay at the club for next season and try to qualify for the AFC Champions League, Asia's top club competition. Failing that, the AFC Cup beckons, a second-tier tournament. Ultimately, Chan would like to work in the pro women's leagues in China or England, though England may be a more fitting home for another unlikely title winner.

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