There is always so much focus on the teams and the players as World Cups come and go but so often little is mentioned about the coach unless there is an inspired decision or sadly a bizarre one that leads to a loss.
In the lead up to the World Cup I have been very fortunate to spend time with a number of the coaches during the Cyprus Cup and chat about all sorts from formations, to highs and lows and training regimes. But just to give you some stats first.
The first World Cup saw five female coaches lead their national teams, this figure has risen slightly to seven in the latest tournament. Of these women only Silvia Neid of Germany (who we interviewed last issue) will be making her third appearance. Pia Sundhage of Sweden will be making her second appearance with the balance of the female coaches all making their first appearance, what a cauldron to enter!
Streets ahead of all the other male coaches is Even Pellerud of Norway who will lead his side to his 5th World Cup, a remarkable feat for any coach. With thirteen of the male coaches making their debuts this will be a very interesting World Cup from a coaching point of view.
Each coach I spoke to has had very different things to contend with as they approach the World Cup. The Matildas, along with the Football Ferns have the biggest geographical challenges as well as getting game time. As Matilda’s coach Alen Stajcic said to me,”...the balancing act for us is geography and getting games and protecting the players from injury with too many games”.
With youth on their side and a squad of 30 to choose from as well as a lot of games and quality periods of time together leading to the World Cup, Alen is confident that they are a team to be reckoned with. “It’s a tough group but we are growing with each game we play. We are definitely in the mix to lift the Cup, there is a group of nine or so who could possibly win and we are in it, so that’s good.”
For Korea and coach Yoon Dukyeo it’s been all about getting the right combinations of players, holding training camps and keeping with a clearly defined plan that has been laid out. Dukyeo explained his training regime and said of the World cup plans, “...preparation is going well, but we must keep with the plans.”
Hosts Canada may have the home advantage but that can also be a home pressure and coach John Herdman is all to aware of these pitfalls and so has ensured that this issue was addressed head-on early in the program. As he explained, “I needed to put them in situations they were uncomfortable with, so playing big teams at home and losing in front of 25,000, has taught everyone a lot but also dealt with the pressure”. However, Herdman feels that it’s about training for every eventuality on the field and preparing the team mentally. It’s about empowering them on the pitch, in the cauldron of the World Cup to change and be flexible but not rattled.
Leonardo Cuéllar will be leading the Mexican national team on this his third outing to a World Cup. Having spent 15 years building a national women’s development program, Cuéllar is in an enviable position with too many players to choose from and a couple of key players who are about to come off the sick bench. He sees that consistency is key for them and that there is still room for improvement - and hopes that the two training camps and four friendlies between now and the World Cup will provide that. Cuéllar said of his team to me, “...we are in a difficult group but we have everything to gain and nothing to loose. We are eager to have a good World Cup for our country”. This is a great view to have as well as a good position to be in with less than two months till kick off.
So for me it has been interesting to chat with all these coaches and hear what they have to say and observe their varying focus - and that is what makes this sport such a great one to watch and be involved in. Culture, training, previous match experience and even the number of times the country has attended the World Cup all have a huge influence on their build-up to the event. It is this fact that makes these 24 coaches, both male and female, so remarkable - but also adds such a burden and pressure with a record audience around the world predicted watching every decision they make and questioning every bit of training and planning they made leading to this point.
All the coaches have two things in common: a passion for women’s football and a desire to lift the World Cup. And as Alen Stajcic said, “that’s the great thing about this World Cup - there are a few teams in the mix that can do it this time and that can only be good for the game”. He is right, what better advertisement can there be than there being no definite winner ahead of the World Cup - with all the favourites having been beaten at some point recently, wonderful!