When Marie-Louise Eta takes her seat in the away dugout at Braga on Wednesday night women across the world will have reason to cheer long and loud. In her capacity as interim joint assistant manager at Union Berlin, Eta is set to become the first senior female coach to be actively involved in a men’s Champions League group stage game.
There was a time, not so long ago, when such a scenario seemed impossible. Indeed the inherent challenges involved dictate that Eta’s achievement still feels almost akin to a human walking on the moon. At elite levels of the men’s game gender diversity often remains a vague aspiration rather than anything approaching reality, so quite a watershed was achieved when, on Saturday, Eta helped choreograph Union Berlin to a 1-1 home draw with Augsburg. In the process she became the first female assistant manager in Bundesliga history.
Eta and Union’s temporary manager, Marco Grote, had been promoted from the same roles with the club’s under-19s after nine straight defeats left the first team bottom, prompting the sacking of Urs Fischer.
On Monday Grote returned to the under-19s after Nenad Bjelica’s appointment as Union’s manager but, for the moment, Eta will remain with the first team, sharing assistant coach duties with Bjelica’s trusted sidekick Danijel Jumic.
Although she is scheduled to return to the juniors once Sebastian Bönig, Fischer’s former deputy, returns from extended leave, the 32-year-old’s time in the spotlight could yet prove career-changing. Having won the 2009-10 Women’s Champions League as a defensive midfielder with Turbine Potsdam under her maiden name of Bagehorn, Eta, who grew up in Dresden and whose husband, Benjamin, is a former professional footballer turned coach, can hardly be described as a European novice.
Even so, she knows that her feat in breaking through what many women employed in football refer to as the game’s “grass ceiling” is likely to be accompanied by considerable scrutiny. Not to mention scepticism.
Although Grote has said she was “quickly accepted” by Union’s under-19 men, Eta told Uefa a slightly more nuanced story last month. “I’ve always tried not to put the focus on the fact that I’m a woman but I noticed some people started treating me completely differently compared with before,” she said. “It is something that is not always comfortable.”
At least Eta can seek counsel from her good friend and former BV Cloppenburg teammate Imke Wübbenhorst. The latter made German football history by managing the lower-division Cloppenburg men’s side before becoming a junior part of Julian Nagelsmann’s backroom staff while on a secondment at RB Leipzig during their 2019-20 Champions League campaign.
Wübbenhorst is the manager of Young Boys’ women’s team in Switzerland and offered her old friend the following advice: “As a female you have to convince male players with good drills and good analysis. They will not be impressed with your playing career and there are some foreign players with different views of the world.”
Eta’s high-profile presence can only broaden closed minds and challenge stereotypes. Not to mention offer encouragement to a handful of similarly high-flying peers including Helen Nkwocha, the English manager of the Faroe Islands’ men’s side Tvøroyrar Bóltfelag, and Lydia Bedford, the manager of Brentford men’s under-18s.
They are following in Corinne Diacre’s footsteps. From 2014-17 the former France women coach had a stint in charge of the men’s Ligue 2 team Clermont Foot. In Italy, in 1999, Carolina Morace briefly took the helm at Serie C Viterbese. In England, Hannah Dingley took caretaker charge of League Two’s Forest Green Rovers last summer.
Sarina Wiegman, England women’s much-decorated manager, believes a wind of change is blowing through the men’s game. “When I was a little kid I wasn’t allowed to play football,” said Wiegman recently. “Now we think that’s strange. So I hope that in 20 years’ time we’ll be saying: ‘Why didn’t we think females could coach males?’ Now, it’s still a question of can a female coach a men’s team? In every other sector females are in high positions so I think that’s a little bit strange.”
Perhaps significantly, Wiegman believes her career benefited from an early internship on the coaching staff at Sparta Rotterdam men and she will doubtless monitor Eta’s progress with interest.
Eta began coaching after hanging up her boots at 26 and, having swiftly gained the pro licence qualification, was quickly lauded for her work with Germany’s junior national women’s teams.
“It doesn’t make me proud that I’m the only women,” said Eta after accepting the men’s under-19 post at Union Berlin. “I don’t see any difference between men and women working in youth football. The quality of the coach, on and off the pitch, is what matters.”
Germany’s Kevin Schade evidently agrees. When the Brentford striker’s agent used social media to claim Eta’s appointment was making “German football look ridiculous” his client promptly sacked him. “I stand for openness, equality and diversity,” said Schade.
Although it would be naive to imagine such enlightened attitudes are typical of what remains a frequently reactionary, sometimes downright misogynistic, male dressing-room culture, Wiegman believes change beckons.
“I think a female can coach a men’s team,” she says. “It’s only a matter of time until it happens and, when it does, more will follow.”