Last year, Imke Wübbenhorst became the first woman to coach a men’s team in one of Germany’s top five leagues. Now, with Germany’s top coaching badge, she's aiming to take Sportfreunde Lotte back to the third division.
German Football's Female Trailblazer
German fourth division side Sportfreunde Lotte returned to training last week ahead of a new season in the Regional League West. Putting the players through their paces, however, for only the second ever time at this level was a female head coach: Imke Wübbenhorst.
Fresh from completing Germany's prestigious "Fussball-Lehrer"("football teacher") coaching badge, it's the 31-year-old's second job in men's football. After taking charge of fifth-division side BV Cloppenburg for six months in 2019, Wübbenhorst has now become only the second female head coach in Germany's fourth tier after Inka Grings at SV Straelen last season.
"I've never wanted to do anything else. I've always wanted to be a coach, and I've always wanted to be a very highly qualified coach," Wübbenhorst tells DW. "I studied sport, biology and education, but not because I wanted to be a teacher; I knew that those subjects would help me to become a top coach."
Achieving top grades in the classroom is one thing, but Wübbenhorst has always known that practical experience is just as vital. The former Hamburg midfielder and Germany under-23 international sacrificed a lot to gain that coaching badge and also took up a placement at Bundesliga side RB Leipzig working alongside Julian Nagelsmann.
"I gave up my flat and sold off a lot of stuff, pretty much everything I owned, in order to do my badges," she reveals. "But football is something for which I am prepared to give up everything to be successful. You can only achieve things in this sport when you really love it and don't compromise, because it's so competitive."
It's tough enough for male coaches to make it to the top of the professional men's game, but even tougher for women. Few teams have any experience of employing female coaches and club and league hierarchies are still awash with outdated and chauvinistic views. Women are still confronted with baseless stereotypes, whether questioning their authority in a male-dominated environment or reducing them to irrelevant physical differences.
Wübbenhorst herself highlighted just how absurd such questions are when asked last year whether she had to warn her players to put their shorts on before she entered the dressing room. "Of course not," she responded coolly. "I'm a professional; I pick the team on penis length."
The comment won her the "Football Quote of the Year" award. As humorous as the remark was, though, it was a telling answer to an inane question that revealed just what sort of hurdles women face in the men's game.
Old habits die hard
"Women are always ascribed the same attributes, that we're not authoritative, that we can't make decisions," she says. "Things that, now that I'm active within the game, I know just aren't true. All that depends on your personality and nothing else.
"It's about time we stopped classifying people according to their external differences and stopped pigeonholing them."
Where women are finally conquering football
Not that Wübbenhorst has time for such trivialities as she tries to take Sportfreunde Lotte back to the third division. The club from Lotte in western Germany, whose prefix translates as "sports friends," spent three years in the national third division before being relegated in 2019, and even reached the quarterfinal of the German Cup in 2017, knocking out Werder Bremen and Bayer Leverkusen before ultimately succumbing to Borussia Dortmund.
They're a small club but they have history, tradition and expectations, and Wübbenhorst is relishing the challenge.
"Those Saturdays or Sundays when you hear the studs on the floor in the tunnel, when you smell the grass, when you prepare your team-talk to motivate the lads — they're the greatest feelings in sport," she says.
"And then the roller-coaster of emotions during a game: you take the lead, but then concede an equalizer and then maybe another, but then then you come back and go on to score the winner. You only get that in sport. That's what I live for."