This year a young female football coach from Hong Kong made history when she became the first woman ever to lead a men’s team to a national title. The story of Chan Yuen-ting’s success is widely framed as a major step for women who take on managerial roles in male-dominated sports.
While she is hailed as an idol, what is the context of Chan’s achievement? Has football in Hong Kong been providing women with more opportunities than the rest of the world? Or was her success just luck?
Making of a world’s first
In April 2016, 27-year-old Chan Yuen-ting held up a league trophy in the air, witnessed by about 3,000 local spectators, who found their way to the stadium in the far east of the city. Little was known about the media frenzy that would follow.
Within hours of Eastern Sports Club winning the Hong Kong Premier League, news that something historic might have happened spread like wildfire. By the next day, the story had found its way to the BBC, followed by features in The Guardian, Univision, and SBS. The coverage was unified in highlighting a long-winded description of a straightforward achievement: “the first female football coach to win a top-flight men’s championship”.
The recognition of Chan’s success was immortalised when she was officially awarded the Guinness World Record for the same reason. The global award highlighted that it had taken more than 150 years of modern football history to reach this point.
Ever since, Chan, who is often called by her Chinese nickname Beef Ball, has become a popular figure in Hong Kong and abroad. She was hired as TV moderator by LeSports – one of China’s biggest sport streaming portals – and has attended corporate events as motivational speaker.
In July 2016, she received the city’s Bronze Bauhinia Star, making her the only second sporting figure in Hong Kong to receive this honour. But Chan’s status as national heroine reached its peak when, in November, the BBC listed her as one of the 100 most influential women of 2016 and, on December 1st, the Asian Football Confederation honoured her as Women’s Coach of the Year.
If things stay as they are now, Chan Yuen-ting will set another record in 2017, when she will be the first woman to manage a men’s team in a regional champions league tournament.
Getting there, though, was anything but planned.
A risky career choice
Chan’s interest in football emerged relatively late and only flourished once she entered university. She joined the women’s section of a regional football club at the age of 19, and also represented Hong Kong in the national team.
During this time, Chan faced a lot of scepticism from her family. The women’s league only has amateur status, forcing players and staff to have regular daytime jobs. Only the men’s league allows footballers to make their living from the sport.
Chan took out a loan to self-finance her postgraduate studies in sport medicine and health science. And, in the meantime, she started working as a football data analyst. She was subsequently offered the role of assistant coach for various youth teams and top-tier clubs. But she had never held an actual head coach position until December 2015, when her predecessor suddenly left Eastern Sports Club, making her the next most qualified staff in line.
Chan’s career would not have taken off without the sanction of a man - club director Peter Leung - who has retrospectively called his decision a “no-brainer”.
Change agent or caretaker?
Now that she has been celebrated as a pioneer, it’s very tempting to understand Chan’s success as move towards gender equality. But was she appointed in spite or because of being a woman?
It doesn’t seem Chan Yuen-ting was hired because of her gender. Despite lacking a substantial career as professional footballer, she proved herself through her technical expertise, while earning her stripes in positions that had mainly kept her behind the scenes. But finding the fate of one of the best local teams in her hands was an unprecedented breakthrough.
And let’s not forget that while her appointment to lead a men’s team was extraordinary, so would have been a coaching position for a women’s team. Recent figures suggest the share of female coaches in women’s football has steadily declined, with a majority of manager positions in Europe and the United States being taken by men. A quick look at the coaching benches in Asia suggests a similar tendency.
In interviews, Chan Yuen-ting has been surprisingly outspoken about the pressure she faced during the first weeks and the fear she would not live up to expectations. But her team delivered the desired results, and with it came the respect of the football community.
Nevertheless, it’s important not to ascribe too much subversive significance to this event. Although empirical research shows female coaches often perform “significantly better” than their male counterparts, Chan was not appointed as a change agent.
In football jargon, she was the typical temporary “caretaker” – recruited internally and needing to perform extraordinarily well to be considered for a full-fledged assignment. She just did that.
A step towards gender equality?
Chan Yuen-ting has set an extremely important example for other women in the world who have similar dreams. But it’s also important to reflect on why her success has been constantly reduced to astonishment of how she had managed to cross the gender barrier and what role her “crush” David Beckham played in it. Her breakthrough has arguably been foiled to some extent by the continuous emphasis on her gender.
Leading a men’s team to a championship has entitled her to a “Women’s Coach of the Year” award, notwithstanding the irony that with this ward, she is still evaluated differently.
While club, league and media have all capitalised on Chan’s achievement, it’s unknown how they would have reacted to failure. Would she be treated equally to her coaching peers, or be looked upon less favourably? Would she have been given another chance if her team had finished below expectations?
In an interview with the Guardian, Chan has said she’s aware of having become a role model for young women in similar situations. But asked about the reasons of her success, she hinted at cultural characteristics of the region, suggesting there’s hardly any discrimination between men and women in Hong Kong.
This opinion is slightly at odds with the social and economic realities in the city. According to a 2015 survey, around 30% of men and roughly 50% of women show progressive attitudes towards gender equality, which puts Hong Kong on a similar level with China, Singapore, and Thailand.
It’s of utmost importance then, to acknowledge the incidental nature of Chan’s appointment, which is far from being an intended outcome of the current structures.
Hong Kong - currently 140th in international football ranking – is one of the most unlikely places to produce “the first female football coach to win a top-flight men’s championship”. And it’s arguably this very unlikeliness that made it possible.
For most women, coaching a men’s team is still off-limits, barring them altogether from the opportunity to pursue professional careers as football managers.
Hopefully, the recognition of Chan Yuen-ting’s success will eventually go beyond celebrating the “miracle”, and address more important questions about gender equity in football. Why did this take so long? And, where are the other women?