French professional soccer club Clermont Foot made history Wednesday when it announced that Helena Costa, a 36-year-old Portuguese woman, had signed on to be the club’s head coach for the 2014–2015 season.
Clermont plays in Ligue 2, the French second division, which will make Costa the “highest-profile female manager” to ever head a European men’s team, according to the BBC:
Before Costa, the highest-profile appointment of a woman as coach of a men’s team in Europe was that of Carolina Morace, who took charge of Italian Serie C1 team Viterbese for two matches in 1999.
Costa has coached Iran’s national women’s team since 2012, and before that led Qatar’s women’s national team to its first ever victory earlier that year. She has extensive experience in the men’s game, too: she was a scout for Celtic FC — the best club in the Scottish Premier League — from 2008 to 2011 and served as a youth coach for top-level Portuguese club Benfica for 13 years.
Clermont currently sits in 14th place in Ligue 2, likely safe from relegation to a lower league but far off the pace set by the top Ligue 2 sides. The club is hopeful that Costa’s record of success — she coached Portuguese women’s side Sociedade Uniao 1 Dezembro to two national titles and another Portuguese women’s team, Odivelas, to promotion from the second division to the first — will usher in a “new era” in the club’s history and earn it promotion to Ligue 1, the top French league.
Coaching remains one of the biggest barriers facing women in sports around the world, and the United States is no different. There has never been a female head coach in any major American pro sports league, and none in major college basketball or football either. Only about 3 percent of men’s sports teams at the college level have women coaches, and since 1990, when then-University of Kentucky head basketball coach Rick Pitino made Bernadette Mattox the first female assistant coach in men’s basketball history, only two other women have served in a similar role, according to USA Today. There have been small markers of progress — in 2009, Nancy Lieberman became the first female head coach in the NBA Development League and the Brockton Rox of the Can-Am League made Justine Siegal what is believed to be the first female head coach in professional baseball history — but overall, women have been and still are largely absent from the coaching ranks throughout men’s sports (they make up a smaller share of women’s coaches than they ever have too).
There are reasons for the shortage, from stereotypical ideas that male players won’t listen to women who coach them (Mattox and others have attested to the obvious fallacies of this belief) to the fact that women don’t see other women coaching in the men’s ranks and thus don’t even think to seek out these jobs. But as plenty of male coaches have proven, playing at the top level of men’s sports is hardly a prerequisite to coaching success, and there’s no good reason women can’t coach men and find success doing it. Clermont Foot has recognized that, and more leagues and teams across the world should too.