By Helen Owton
Despite, England’s devastating loss against Japan (and I haven’t quite recovered from their cruel defeat), the nation’s eyes and attention now fall on the people who were partly responsible for the England’s Women’s Football Team success and impelled them into the semi-finals.
In the lead up to the Women’s FIFA World Cup, Mark Sampson was subjected to criticism (e.g. playing too defensively, selecting the right team) and he has had to prove himself during these few weeks. Not only does he have to prove his coaching, but he has had to be careful not to take all the credit for the women’s success. This isn’t just about football. Indeed Owen Jones argues that “men must embrace feminism, but not steal it” and Mark has given a lot of credit to the ‘England Heroes’ and his right hand person and England Assistant Coach, Marianne Spacey; it’s good to see women and men working dynamically and collaborating in their coaching roles behind the scenes to enable this success. Nonetheless, none of this changes the fact that there are so few women coaches, managers and officials in football, not only in the men’s game, but in the women’s game as well with just a global percentage of 7% of women coaching in football. Additionally, men hold 97% of European coaching licences and only 65 women hold a UEFA Pro Licence compared to 9,387 men.
Whilst more men are helping to progress the growth of the women’s football game and the viewing figures stormed to a peak audience of 2.4 million in the U.K. during the semi-final game between Japan and England, let’s not forget that the liberation of women is down to women and this is the same in football. The strides behind the scenes have been down to the struggle and sacrifice of women in football.
Helena Costa was the first female to coach a professional men’s football team, Clermont Foot but she resigned on the first day of her job. We don’t know the reason why she resigned but there has been some speculation and it might well involve a gendered argument particularly given the undercurrent of sexism that troubles football.
Women coaching men
In fact, there appears to be very few high profile examples of women coaching men in the whole of sport in the U.K.; Amelie Mauresmo coaching Andy Murray in tennis; Giselle Mather (Britain’s most prominent female full-time professional rugby coach at London Irish);Margot Wells coached husband, Allan Wells and is now an elite sprint and fitness coach working with members of the England Rugby Team; Mel Marshall was named Swimming Coaches Association Coach of the year in 2014 after Adam Peaty’s success – seven Commonwealth and European medals and two world records. They all seem to prove their critics wrong.
Recently, Murray has been angered by comments about his female coach but if he wins Wimbledon even more strides will be made for female coaches. Murray says that working with a female coach has meant that he’s been able to talk more openly and he argues in an article for L’equipe that ‘It’s a crying shame there aren’t more female coaches’. Tennis appears to be one of the more progressive sports for women with equal pay and mixed doubles, but prevailing gender norms are still reinforced. Once again, these progressions have been down to the struggle and sacrifice of women, particularly one woman in: Billie Jean King who has relentlessly fought for equality in professional tennis. These few examples of successful women coaches show that although they are in the minority, when they do get the chance they make a big impact.
It is evident that women are powerful influencers both as individuals, coaches, collaborators and enforcers of change in the world of sport. Sport is unquestionably missing out on something dynamic and influential if they do not have women involved and they have obviously started to realise this. Whilst initiatives are being created to include more women in coaching, women also need to be situated in more powerful positions (e.g. Executive committees) to challenge cultural attitudes that still need to change so that both women and men do not have to put up with sexism from the public, from organisations and sexist coverage that puts women off working in particular sporting fields and makes their job harder. The criticism women referees have received at this FIFA World Cup means that these initiatives would also improve the standard of refereeing at future International football tournaments as well, but we must remember that women are frequently subjected to harsh criticism when working in male-dominated roles.
We are taking the right steps forward to challenge this undercurrent flow of sexism but we still have a long way to go before women coach men in premiership leagues. We may be lost for words after England’s defeat in the semi-finals against Japan, but let’s keep the dialogue going about women’s position in football so that the next Women’s World Cup is not played on artificial turf.