Osasu Obayiuwana: Crossing the gender frontier

Next season is going to be extremely interesting for second division French side Clermont Foot.

Appointing Helena Costa, a 36-year-old Portuguese woman, as its new manager, the club has certainly crossed a gender frontier.

The first female to be put in charge of a male football club in France – and any first or second division side in Europe, for that matter – Costa is certain to receive a level of global media scrutiny that even she might be surprised with.

And the only reason she is getting it is because the question of whether a woman can successfully manage a male professional team is one provoking a lot of interest and debate.

But should it? And is the fact, that it obviously does, not a very telling message that football still has a very long distance to travel, if it’s to be truly regarded as a sport for all people?

With a master’s degree in sports science, possessing the required UEFA coaching badges, having managed the male youth team of Portuguese side Benfica and worked as a scout for Scotland’s Celtic, even a dyed-in-the-wool chauvinist would find it hard to argue that Costa, the former manager of the Qatari and Iranian female national teams, is undeserving of her chance.

There are many male coaches that have been given first-time opportunities in club football with a CV that is not as rich as Costa’s.

The unanswered question, which the next French season will clearly answer, is if Claude Michy, the president of Clermont, is genuinely committed to see Costa succeed.

That will be demonstrated by giving her complete backing to manage the team without interference and not hand Costa the sack, at the slightest sign of turmoil.

Carolina Morace, who took charge of Italian Serie C1 side Vitterbese in 1999, a ground breaking appointment at the time, only managed the team for two games before resigning, after falling out with the controversial club president Luciano Gaucchi, who also owned Perugia.

The 50 year-old lawyer, who has not coached a male team since, resisted Gaucchi’s attempt to sack her assistants.

“He let me know that I could carry on working with whomever I wanted. But by then [mutual] trust was lacking and I didn’t fancy carrying on in that climate of uncertainty,” Morace said.

Gaucchi, as would be recalled, bizarrely terminated Perugia’s contract with Ahn Jung-Hwan, because the South Korea international had, in his view, the temerity to score a winning goal against Italy at the 2002 World Cup finals.

Costa will certainly need the firm backing of a determined club president, regarding dressing room matters, if the reported response of Clermont’s players, to her appointment, is anything to go by.

French sports daily L’Equipe reported that Emmanuel Imorou, the club’s left full back, who is out of contract at the end of the season, admitted his colleagues have been ‘wondering’ whether the Portuguese will have the backbone to assert her authority.

That some players, according to Imorou, spent time googling pictures of Costa, “to see if she’s pretty”, rather than worry about their futures under a new manager, to whom they’ll have to prove their worth, speaks volumes about the degree of prejudice that she’ll have to overcome.

“When the sporting director told us about the decision, we were all surprised… We (the players) have discussed the appointment. Some laughed about it, others a little less. We wondered how she’ll manage a group of men,” Imorou told the paper.

“In my heart, I want to say no (that Costa’s gender is unimportant) but it will change everything. This is unprecedented… I do not know if I’m here next season, because I am out of contract.

“Time will tell if this is a good choice. If she does not perform well, they will say it is because she is a woman. But if the choice produces good results, it should open the eyes of many.”

What would constitute “good results”, in the minds of Costa’s new bosses, is certainly a matter of interpretation.

Would that be an improvement on its 14th place in the current campaign? Or does next season have to be a complete transformation, into a side capable of earning promotion to the top division, before she is seen as a success?

If Clermont are really serious about this appointment, there is no doubt that Costa must be given sufficient time to implement her philosophy and mould the side into an effective team.

That will, most likely, require fundamental changes that will certainly take more than a season to carry out. If the ship gets stuck in the waters of relegation, Costa would, obviously, be subjected to the inevitable sack that her male counterparts would get.

In an objective world, devoid of gender bias, Costa would not have to shoulder the unwanted burden of having to prove, to male chauvinists, that a well-qualified woman is capable of successfully dealing with the pressures of managing a football club.

Being a standard-bearer for women, who would certainly want to follow in her footsteps, is undesired baggage, when all she wants is to achieve success in her chosen career, like everyone else.

But whoever said that life is fair?

I really hope that she is given a fair shot and the required support to succeed.

Football will be very poorly served if it is discovered that Costa was unwittingly used as a PR gimmick.

Osasu Obayiuwana, a lawyer and BBC broadcaster, as well as the Associate Editor of NewAfrican magazine, is one of the world’s leading journalists on African football. His regular commentary on the state of the African game can also be read at footballisafrica.com. Contact him at moc.l1516466926labto1516466926ofdlr1516466926owedi1516466926sni@a1516466926nawui1516466926yabo.1516466926usaso1516466926.

Osasu is also a member of FIFA’s anti-discrimination task force.