Costa comes to Clermont from the proven Portuguese school of thought

The likes of Jose Mourinho, Andre Villas-Boas and Carlos Queiroz have broken myths while all eyes will be on the coach who fights gender prejudice among the men.
The Clermont Foot coach Helena Costa is known in her home country of Portugal as “Mourinho in a skirt”. AFP
The Clermont Foot coach Helena Costa is known in her home country of Portugal as “Mourinho in a skirt”. AFP

Helena Costa, appointed as coach in France’s Ligue 2 next season, will have gathered over the past few days the degree of scrutiny set to trail her through her first few months in the job.

The precedent she established was always bound to make headlines in a macho world like professional football.

She will also appreciate that her sport is a branch of entertainment, with some of the same 21st-century dynamics as show business.

The publicity has clearly not alarmed the Clermont Foot president, Claude Michy, who has given a woman the most senior coaching position in the modern history of men’s football.

The attention, Michy indicated, will be welcome. The pressure, Costa said, is something she greets with enthusiasm: “I sleep well with pressure,” she told L’Equipe.

That is one of the several observations which show she is as literate in modern managerspeak as the most articulate coaches of her generation, and especially those who have grown up with similarly thorough educations in all aspects of the game.

The detail of that education is worth noting. Of more relevance than her gender to her appointment may be her nationality and her schooling in football.

Costa had the good luck, given her vocation, to be born Portuguese, and to grow up in an era where coaching in that country has benefited from progressive thinking, and in the slipstream of a generation of Portuguese coaches enjoying success abroad.

The list includes the likes of Carlos Queiroz, once of Real Madrid, now managing Iran; Jose Mourinho, with a glittering CV well-known enough to scarcely need repeating; Andre Villas-Boas of Zenit Saint-Petersburg; and the Arabian Gulf League club Al Wahda’s Jose Peseiro.

All of them developed in a Portuguese system respected for its emphasis on scholarship and academic rigour.

And none of them enjoyed significant careers as players anywhere near the upper echelons of professional men’s football.

Not so long ago, that would have been a barrier. An iron gateway of prejudice used to stand in front of coaches without a distinguished set of achievements from their playing days.

They would struggle, wisdom dictated, to “gain the respect” in the locker rooms, they would hear their authority undermined by footballers challenging their specific instructions with the simple, sneering riposte: “I never saw you do it as a player in front of 50,000 fans.”

From time to time, even Mourinho has been engaged by bad-tempered squad members in that sort of dialogue. He can afford to shrug.

When it comes to a show-us-your-medals contest, his list of managerial prizes trumps those of most footballers he has worked with. These days, past accolades on the pitch can be a factor in the appointment of coaches, but it is far from a priority.

In the English Premier League, for instance, home of some of the world’s most sought-after managerial jobs, three of the top four positions in the table by the end of this weekend are likely to be filled by managers who collectively played a single match at pan-European level.

Nobody doubts the capacity of Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger – who once, and only once, represented Strasbourg in the Uefa Cup – to spot a talent.

Nor does anybody question how effectively Liverpool’s Brendan Rodgers, whose hopes of a playing career were snubbed by a knee injury at 20, communicates with young billionaires.

Nobody asks how Mourinho can know about a team’s defensive shape given that, in his 20s, he was not considered physically imposing enough to make it past the lower-division level as a midfielder.

Arguments that Costa lacks the requisite experience to guide professional men under her charge tend to follow similar lines to the old-fashioned reasoning that those who had not been great players could never be great managers.

Those prejudices have faded.

The notion that gender is a determining factor in management ought to be no more relevant to sport than anywhere else.

“Sometimes you need to break free of society’s established formulas,” Michy said. “It makes life more interesting. And I’m pleased so many people are talking about our club.”

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Published: May 9, 2014 04:00 AM


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