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World Cup: Wiegman remains key as female coaches stall

August 21, 2023

England's Sarina Wiegman may have lost a second consecutive World Cup final, but she remains a rare role model for female coaches. Most international sides have men at the helm.

Sarina Wiegman looks on during the World Cup final
Sarina Wiegman has won the Euros twice, but her success has not led to more female coaches at the top levelImage: Zac Goodwin/PA Wire/empics/picture alliance

Of her many qualities, it is Sarina Wiegman's constant composure that stands out. Even as her England side suffered defeat in the 2023 World Cup final, just as her Netherlands' team had four years earlier, she stayed calm, strolling across the pitch to her crushed players before heading to the Spain bench to congratulate the winners.

"She's given us the confidence to believe in ourselves and a lot of calmness in situations where we've been put under pressure," England defender Lucy Bronze explained to DW. 

Though she has fallen short on the global stage, Wiegman has won the last two European Championships, with England in 2022 and her native Netherlands in 2017. 

Redressing the balance

But it's not just success that makes Wiegman an outlier. She was the only female coach to make the quarterfinals of this tournament and one of only 12 that started it. That is a figure higher than 2019 (nine) and 2015 (eight), though both of those World Cups had eight fewer teams. The ratio of female to male coaches is not changing much.

"It would be nice if the balance gets better, and we need to work to make it better. UEFA doing that, FIFA doing that, federations need to do that and also give women opportunities," she said, in answer to a DW question after the 2023 final in Sydney. 

Jill Ellis, who won the previous two tournaments with the USA, agrees. She told DW that such discrepancies are the result of opportunity deficit.

Jill Ellis holds her World Cup medal
Jill Ellis won the 2019 and 2015 tournaments with the USAImage: Ding Xu/ Xinhua/imago images

"I think women can execute at the top level. I think what you're seeing, in terms of the numbers, is we've got to continue to create and invest in opportunities. We can't assign a head coach just because she's a female, we have to make sure that there's support around or that she's educated to be ready for that position when it arrives," she said.

One way street

The success of coaches like Wiegman and Ellis has, so far, not led to female coaches taking charge of prominent men's sides in the same way men often coach women. While Wiegman's links with the England men's job seem speculative for now, Ellis said it's only a matter of time until that changes.

"I don't think it's far away at all," she continued. "We've seen it in the US in other sports. We've had assistant coaches in NFL [American Football], Major League Baseball, NBA [Basketball]. I think it should be almost genderless if you're a good coach, you're a good coach. It's about the grassroots. In the US, for example, we hardly have any females on the sidelines of the youth.

"I think it's because it's a tough environment. Parents are hard in there, sometimes, criticizing. People sometimes think that a great coach is someone screaming and yelling, because they're doing something. And so I don't think we see females in that area, and then therefore, they're not cutting their teeth at an early age."

While this World Cup and last year's EUROs in England have seen the profile of the game skyrocket, and participation numbers soar among girls, those changes don't appear to quite be filtering through to coaches. A FIFA survey in 2019 found more than 13 million girls and women played the sport, but only 7% of coaches worldwide were women.

Sarina Wiegman lifts the European Championship trophy
Sarina Wiegman wants to see more female coachesImage: Daniela Porcelli/firo/picture alliance

"It helps to see women on the stage, both on and off the pitch because what you can see, you can be,” said Wiegman in her pre-final press conference.

"Of course what we hope is to get more female football coaches at the top level and the balance gets better than it is right now," she had said earlier in the knockout stages. "Of course males are welcome too. There are lots of males who have done a very good job in the women's game, but if the balance is better that will also inspire other women to start coaching."

Though FIFA have not always been quick to grow the women's game, Ellis pointed to a program from world football's governing body that mandates there must be a female coach or assistant at youth World Cups. It is too early to judge the success of that. But there are still gender-based obstacles even for those who navigate the complex path to the top dugouts, like Chelsea coach Emma Hayes.

Held to a higher standard

"You're going to be held to the highest expectations. It's not good enough just to win, it has to look perfect in almost everything," Hayes, who has won dozens of trophies with the English club and was named FIFA's Best Coach in 2021, told a panel at an event in Sydney shortly before the World Cup final.

Emma Hayes talks to her Chelsea players
Emma Hayes has led Chelsea to a Champions League final and several domestic titlesImage: Michael Erichsen/Bildbyran/imago images

"Maybe I've just come to accept that scrutiny over the years, and with age, it's got easier," continued. "When I think about being a head coach, when I was in Chicago Red Stars [2008-10], these were the days when Twitter first started and I was overwhelmed with that. Early on in my career, I struggled with it. Now I just have processes in place. Clear Rules, I won't read social media for one reason, and that is that I think is important to protect your own confidence."

Wiegman's confidence is unlikely to have taken too much of a dent in Australia, and neither has her reputation. She will no doubt be an inspiration to many, but it's clear there is still plenty of work to do.

"It is still necessary to do more to get more females involved," Wiegman concluded. "I hope everyone has seen again that women and girls are inspired that they can coach or play." She is not alone in that hope.

Edited by: Michael Da Silva