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Wednesday, July 6, 2011
Women making their mark as coaches too

By Joanne C. Gerstner

LEVERKUSEN, Germany -- It's a debate that can continue for an eternity, without anybody coming to a definitive answer.

Is it better to have a woman coaching an elite women's team, or does it matter if the coach is a man?

This FIFA Women's World Cup is a bit of a watershed moment for female head coaches, as a record six of them helm teams. There are 10 male coaches.

The six women -- Pia Sundhage (U.S.), Hope Powell (England), Carolina Morace (Canada), Silvia Neid (Germany), Eucharia Uche (Nigeria) and Eli Landsem (Norway) -- represent a new wave of coaches: They were all soccer stars themselves, playing in the earliest versions of the Women's World Cup in the 1990s.

Powell played for England in the 1995 World Cup and became the first woman to earn a UEFA pro coaching license in 2003. Neid played for Germany, Morace for Italy, Sundhage for Sweden, Uche for Nigeria -- all in the World Cup and international competitions.

Many of them are the first female coaches of their World Cup/national team programs. Others, such as Sundhage, are following in the steps of trailblazers such as former U.S. coach April Heinrichs.

To put this in American college basketball terms: Is it better to have Pat Summitt or Tara VanDerveer coaching, or Geno Auriemma? Different coaches, different styles, different genders.

Powell, 44, sees this as an opportune time for women to move from the playing to coaching ranks. She was coached mostly by men during her playing days and has changed her mind over the years about the importance of the gender of who's in charge.

"You know, 15, 20 years ago, when I was playing, I would have said no, it doesn't matter. Let the best person get the job," Powell said. "Today, I have a different answer. I think it is important for women who are interesting in coaching to see us and understand this is something they could aspire to. It shows them what is possible."

Sundhage, one of the best female soccer players in World Cup history, told that even accomplished women coaches face barriers getting to the top.

"The quality of a coach has nothing to do with his or her gender," Sundhage said. "However, as a woman, it's extremely difficult to find a coaching job. I was lucky to be able to work in China, Norway and now the USA. Not all my colleagues have the same opportunities.

"One thing I would say is that only a woman who has overcome all the obstacles in her path knows what it means to play at this high level," she said. "It's not for me to say whether that makes us better coaches."

Powell said that while not every aspiring soccer player can make it to the World Cup, Olympics or national team strata, getting more doors opened for women in the coaching ranks is important.

"It gives women a place to go to share their passion and knowledge through coaching," Powell said. "That's fantastic."

And Powell is right. Not every player can make the cut to be the best, but the passion and insight to be a top-flight coach could be there. Seeing a woman calling the shots, from Nigeria to Canada to Sweden, provides a powerful example for young would-be athletes, current players and aspiring coaches.

In a pre-World Cup interview with the Independent newspaper, Powell offered a vivid example of what she sees as the power of female soccer role models. Having a female coach on the sideline carries a brand value.

"It is the same as young girls walking around with the names of Karen Carney, Kelly Smith and Rachel Yankey on the back of their shirts," Powell said, "rather than Michael Owen, David Beckham and Wayne Rooney."