Footballers not models

Yuriko Saeki became only the second woman to manage a Western European men's professional team. Luke Gosset talks to the Japenese coach – briefly manager – of Spanish lower division side Puerta Bonita

FIFA president Sepp Blatter’s comments linking the popularity of women’s football to a lady’s willingness to wear tighter shorts left Japanese coach Yuriko Saeki decidedly unimpressed.

Last December Saeki became only the second  wo­­man to manage a western European men’s professional team when she was given command of Spanish lower division side Puerta Bonita. The 29-year-old followed in the footsteps of the Italy’s Carolina Morace, who took charge of Serie C1 side Viter­bese in 1999 and went on to lead the Italian national women’s team.

Saeki only lasted three games – a win and two defeats – before president Man­uel Campa returned her to her previous role as assistant coach, but the  fact she was given the job in the first place speaks volumes. “It seems to me that Blatter has no idea what he’s talking about,” she said. “Women footballers are foot­ballers, not models.”

Puerta, the club where Real Madrid and Spain goal­keeper Iker Casillas began his career, sacked Manuel Alvarado – their boss of six years – last December and appointed Saeki instead. Saeki earned the position on her own merits, on the back of a passion for the game born the morning she stood in the playground of a Tokyo school and came across a football for the first time. Then she discovered the goalscoring heroics of cartoon characters Oliver and Benji that helped pop­ularise foot­ball in Japan. When she moved to Spain – her father worked for Japanese airline JAL and she followed him around the world as he moved from job to job – she joined the local women’s team in the Madrid suburb of La Elipa, staying for five seasons.

Watching former Barcelona captain Josep Guardiola play in his pomp is said to have inspired her to train as a coach. “I knew I wanted to make a living out of football and thought that it would be too difficult to be a referee as you’re always getting insulted,” she  ex­plained.

Saeki completed a Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) course and was soon being sought out by coaches in Japan looking for reports on first and second division players in Spain. Xabier Azkargorta, the for­mer Spanish boss of Yokohama Marinos, was in regular contact.

She became a well known figure on the Madrid lower league scene and Puerta took her on. There have been issues – banging on the door before entering the dressing room is certainly not something that Sir Alex Ferguson has ever had to worry about – but Saeki is doing a job she loves.

“It’s not easy,” she said. “I definitely feel like I’m being closely observed, but it doesn’t make me feel un­comfortable. It’s always been like this. I feel protected because the conditions exist here for me to integrate. As people I give the players ten out of ten and as foot­ballers I give them full marks again. My relationship with them and the directors is fantastic and this is my best season as a coach.

“Every now and again I do ask myself what I have got to be able to convince these guys. I don’t have much to impress them: not my gender, or my nationality, my CV as a manager or a footballer. But I’m still here and learning all the time.”

From WSC 205 March 2004. What was happening this month