The French league-football team, Clermont Foot, announced its new manager yesterday with the arrival of a 36-year-old Portuguese import at the second-tier outfit. The new manager is fresh from coaching the Iran international side, has previous experience at Celtic in Scotland, has spent time in Qatar and also rose through the ranks at probably the most storied footballing institution in Portugal – Lisbon’s Benfica.
So far, so unexceptional you might think. But you would be wrong. Because this precocious coach – tasked with transforming the relatively modest fortunes of Clermont’s finest – is nothing short of a barrier-breaker, a history maker. She is a woman: Helena Costa.
It’s a damning indictment of the state of the beautiful game in its European heartland. Football is still saddled with so many ugly statistics about the underrepresentation of women, of ethnic minorities, of, well, basically anyone who doesn’t fit in with the white, working-class profile of most fans. And so the choice of Costa to manage a side – the first such appointment in the top two divisions of any of Europe’s “Big Five” leagues: England, France, Germany, Italy or Spain – is a most welcome development.
The prehistoric attitude of both the game’s administrators and most team owners in these five countries is well known to followers of football. And the stats tend to support a pretty cynical view. In the UK, for example, following the recent dismissal of Norwich City coach Chris Hughton, not a single one of the 92 clubs in the entire UK Football League pyramid has a black manager. How is that possible in 2014 across a (relatively) enlightened country? One that seemed to have cast aside some of the racist attitudes that tarnished the national game in the 1970s and 1980s.
Without wishing to indulge in exactly the sort of gender stereotyping that I have been discussing, I will be fascinated, too, to see the sporting impact that Costa’s appointment might have on club, players and fans alike. Will there be better discipline? Less aggression on the field? Will the side play with greater fluency and subtlety?
I suppose that as with any sporting appointment the ultimate judgement will be based on results. This is the reality that Costa – and indeed all of us – should delight in the most: the opportunity to be judged objectively and empirically against all of her counterparts – whatever their gender.
There’s an incredibly long way to go. But at least in Clermont, right in the heart of France, the game is putting its best foot forward.
Tom Edwards is executive producer of Monocle 24 radio.