Helena Costa to Clermont – A New Era?

Costa 1

Costa 1On Tuesday night, game 36 played out in Ligue 2. Caen had won in Brest on Monday, to stay second with a game in hand, and the game to which all eyes were drawn the next night was Lens’ epic 6-1 hammering of Istres, which not only put them level on points with SMC, but also put a significant dent in their goal difference advantage. Metz were crowned Ligue 2 champions with a tight 1-0 win at Troyes, and champagne corks were popping all over the place.

Nimes and Laval both won, aiding their attempts to get away from the drop-zone, as did Auxerre, trying to get out of it, and Chateauroux didn’t, so might be getting slightly nervy. Istres look little bit gone, and in last place CA Bastia managed a fairly useless point with a late Sunday Mba equaliser against lower-mid-table amblers Clermont Foot. This, given what was going on elsewhere, was one of the less interesting games of the round – CAB have been down for a while, and as Clermont look in no danger of relegation, they have little if anything to play for.

Wednesday morning, and Clermont were definitely looking more interesting. Manager Régis Brouard had apparently turned down an offer to extend his contract, and is looking likely for the Niort job to replace Pascal Gastien, so a replacement was needed. It is not unusual for new manager announcements to come out in advance, to allow for a smooth changeover, but the communique from the club caused more than the usual debate about a new appointment. Because their new appointment is Helena Costa.

Costa is a technician / tactician, of the academic school of football management. Coach at various levels in the the Benfica youth set-up, during which time they won numerous titles, she has previous experience of managing a senior men’s team, taking amateur club Recreativa e Desportiva Cheleirense to divisional victory in 2006. She also has experience managing in women’s football, both domestically, at Odivelas FC and SU 1º Dezembro in Portugal, and at international level, with the national teams of Qatar and then Iran. Her credentials also saw her take on a scouting role in Spain and Portugal for Celtic, whose statement said “She did an excellent job for us and we know she will give her new position the same high level of commitment and dedication which she gave to Celtic.”

At the time of writing, the English and French version of her Wikipedia page look rather empty, which we’re hoping is more to do with getting the translation right than miscellaneous ‘comedy’ edits. The Portuguese page lists those Benfica palmares as two Mundialito (a World youth tournament) and two Cup Foot 21 (Portuguese youth tournament) wins, a couple of cup titles with SU 1º Dezembro, and a second division championship with Odivelas. Neither Qatar nor Iran are big names on the world stage for women’s football, but arguably the biggest victory there was to get a team together, given the off-field considerations of such a role, and she got Qatar into the Fifa rankings. It also lists studies done, stages undertaken, conferences led…

Costa 2So, she’s a technician. She’s a woman, which is the thing that will draw most attention, and there’s a slight sneaking suspicion that Claude Michy could be looking to draw attention to his team – Clermont are 14th on 45 points, won 10, drawn 15, lost 11, scored 31, conceded 32, and with no players that jump out at you (Yannis Salibur is top-scorer with 7, Idriss Saadi on loan from ASSE has 6, Thibault Moulin looks good in midfield) in a senior squad of just seventeen senior players per the club communique, which might give some context. However – he’s made the point that he didn’t have to answer these kind of questions about the appointment of Brouard, who had no experience in professional football when he was hired, and if she can survive the ‘comedy’ edits, which her past suggests she can, the key issue would seem to be whether her management style will suit the club.

She may be « La Mourinho en jupon », which would presumably mean autobus being parked all over the Auvergne region, but the tension in management between ex-players of note, full of passion and spirit, and the new breed of data-driven tacticians who confuse their charges with the use of powerpoint and ‘systems’, is one that is way wider than one person. There are apparently strange mixtures of the two (Allardyce’s ProZone habit, Ferguson’s military-style organisation), and figures such as Arsene Wenger who were pioneers in sorting out diet / drinking while not having had stellar playing careers. Andre Villas-Boas got canned from Spurs for apparently baffling the dressing room (Zenit’s players don’t seem to be struggling) and replaced by his polar opposite, which has descended into jokes and chaos and another recruitment drive, and while everyone agrees that Chris Hughton seems a really nice bloke, they also agree that he was largely terrible in managing Norwich. And then there’s Alan Pardew, and there’s frankly no legislating for that.

The difference is, as we’ve seen with Sian Massey’s flagwaving of a different kind in the Premier League, the first time that Clermont lose a game next season – and given their record, I’d imagine that won’t take long – Costa may be criticised more for her gender than her actual approach, and this will be extrapolated out into ‘and this is why women…‘.

Costa 3Nobody thinks it’s weird that there are so many men managing in women’s football, including at eleven of the twelve teams in France Division 1 Feminine. One of the people L’Equipe went to for comment after the announcement was the former, and tactically limited, manager of les Bleues, Bruno Bini, who made a decent point that « Il va falloir la laisser travailler tranquillement » (although with a practical head on, one might say ‘fat chance’), who was replaced by the noticeably man-shaped Philippe Bergeroo. Nobody concluded from Bini’s failure to realise that having talented players wasn’t sufficient without decent tactical choices and organisation, that men were clearly not cut out for this kind of thing. That will, I can confidently and sadly predict, happen for Costa.

The most interesting thing for me is whether a technician can change Clermont’s fortunes and push them up the table. The most constructive debate, if a string of defeats occurs, would be whether her technical approach is appropriate for a lower-table team from Ligue 2, and whether results are actually below the realistic expectations justified by the level (and number) of Clermont’s available players.

The difficulty in finding context for this appointment on gender grounds is evident as articles scrabble around for other women making any appearance in the men’s game in any role at all, as referees, assistants, whatever – no other woman has really managed a senior male professional side before. Carolina Morace resigned after two games managing Viterbese (3rd tier in Italy) – but then went on to manage the national (women’s) teams of Italy and Canada. And Canada rule, by the way. But that gender-based context is perhaps not the most relevant – the most relevant is Costa’s background, the studies, the papers, the conferences, the approach.

I’m a statto, an analytics geek, a chart-ist…I think the data-driven approach has something very useful to give to football. Not everything – there still does need to be something else – but something. And so I will be watching Costa with interest for two reasons – one, that she has stuck her head above the parapet that says there is ‘football’ and ‘women’s football’ and the default-set nature of the first term is massively annoying to anyone following the game outside the top level in specific men’s leagues; two, that she will have a different approach to ex-players who may be harking back to their glory days, and leveraging more technical knowledge to try to get her team through. Because if there is simply ‘football’, then we simply evaluate the success or failure of a managerial approach against the expected level. And Clermont are 14th in Ligue 2 with two games to play.

Allez Helena.


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