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Football: Team break their duck, Chan smashes glass ceiling

Coach Chan Yuen Ting is the first woman in the world to lead a football club to a top-tier league championship. Eastern ended their 21-year wait for the league title last April.
Coach Chan Yuen Ting is the first woman in the world to lead a football club to a top-tier league championship. Eastern ended their 21-year wait for the league title last April.PHOTO: EASTERN FOOTBALL TEAM

Destiny moves in mysterious ways. Slightly more than a quarter century ago, the Tianhe Stadium in Guangzhou, China, hosted the final of the inaugural Fifa Women's World Cup in 1991.

In about a fortnight, the same ground welcomes Chan Yuen Ting, who will create history on her managerial debut in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League.

The 28-year-old manages Eastern Sports Club in the Hong Kong Premier League and will be the first female coach to lead a team in the continent's top club competition.

It promises to be a baptism of fire with Luiz Felipe Scolari, Brazil's 2002 World Cup-winning coach now in charge of Guangzhou Evergrande, in the home dugout for the Group G opener on Feb 22.

The other teams in the group are Kawasaki Frontale, runners-up in last season's J-League, and Suwon Samsung Bluewings. Korean FA Cup winners Suwon, like Guangzhou, are two-time AFC Champions League winners.

A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE

Athletes are very emotional and there's so much up and down in football. Sometimes I think male coaches find it difficult to listen and understand their players.

CHAN YUEN TING, Eastern Sports Club coach, on how a woman's insight can be invaluable to a team.

Chan is undaunted by the increased scrutiny however. She told The Straits Times in a phone interview yesterday: "There's no reason for me or my team to be afraid. All the games will be tough as the teams are on a different level to us but I believe in my players.

"It's important to give them freedom to express themselves on the pitch. Who knows, we could surprise a few people with our performances."

Confounding sceptics and shattering glass ceilings is nothing new for Chan. She was a controversial choice to replace former Eastern coach Yeung Ching Kwong in December 2015, not only because of her gender but also her age and background. She is the youngest head coach in Hong Kong's elite division and has never played the game at a professional level.

Yet Chan, whose love affair with football began as a 13-year-old smitten with former Manchester United star David Beckham, proved her detractors wrong when she ended Eastern's 21-year wait for the league title last April. No woman anywhere in the world had ever led a football club to a top-tier league championship.

She not only had to win matches but also hearts and minds, recalled Chan, who started as a video and data analyst with rival club TSW Pegasus in 2010 on a HK$6,000 (S$1,090) monthly salary.

"I played football, but only at the amateur level. So it was tough to get the players to listen to my ideas. When I made a tactical switch or a substitution during a game, I was so nervous because I didn't want to make a mistake."

On the burning question all her male - and some female - friends have for her, she chuckled: "Yes, I sometimes do my match briefings in the changing room. I've worked with men's football teams for seven years. It's not awkward any more."

Globally, football is still overwhelmingly male-dominated. French Ligue 2 side Clermont Foot 63, helmed by Corinne Diacre, is one of the few clubs with a female head coach, though Chan believes a woman's perspective can be invaluable.

She said: "Athletes are very emotional and there's so much up and down in football. Sometimes I think male coaches find it difficult to listen and understand their players."

Her style of management continues to produce results. Following their 2-0 victory over KMB Yuen Long last night, league leaders Eastern have carved out a three-point lead over second-placed Kitchee FC with eight games remaining.

Yet failure - or the fear of it - is what drives Chan. Last month's 1-2 loss to Kitchee in the Senior Shield final still rankles. She said: "It was a very disappointing result and made me question myself and whether I was good enough. Being a coach is not easy, you always want to keep improving."

Chan's passion is unsurprising. When she was 15, she forged her mother's signature on an application form for a football clinic - her parents had dismissed football as unsuitable for a teenage girl - while her final thesis in university focused on football even though she was pursuing a geography degree.

She has an AFC 'A' coaching licence and is studying for her Pro-Diploma, which is the region's highest level of coaching accreditation.

Chan, who admires Chelsea boss Antonio Conte for his tactical nous, said: "This is my dream job and I can't imagine doing anything else."

Last December, she was named in the BBC's list of 100 influential women of 2016 but played down any mention of herself as a role model for girls everywhere.

She said: "It would be great if I could inspire others to chase their dreams and not feel burden by tradition or bias. But my focus is to win football matches."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 06, 2017, with the headline 'Team break their duck, Chan smashes glass ceiling'. Print Edition | Subscribe