For Tom Sermanni his journey to the top of women’s football has been a rather unorthodox one. In 1983 he left Dunfermline Athletic as a midfielder in search of a new challenge, joining Australian side Marconi Stallions.
Now, he is in charge of the most powerful and renowned team in the women’s game. In terms of pedigree, he presides over the Brazil of women’s football.
Appointed in November by the US Soccer Federation (USSF) Sermanni officially started his tenure as USA women’s team head coach on 1 January , despite being named as head coach in November, and is preparing for his first games in charge; a double-header against the country of his birth, Scotland.
“I couldn’t picked a better team to start against,” the 58-year-old laughed, speaking from his office in Los Angeles. “If somebody had asked me who I wanted to start out against I would’ve said Australia or Scotland. I’m really looking forward to it.”
Having led Australia to three World Cups (in two separate spells as head coach) Sermanni takes charge of an American side fresh from winning gold at the London Olympics. His predecessor, Swede Pia Sundhage, has built a formidable side that sit atop the Fifa rankings.
“It’s a very impressive set-up here,’ Sermanni told The Scotsman. “The size of the programme was the first thing that struck me. There’s nothing as big as this in women’s football. For instance, one of my first conversations as coach was with the senior team manager Tom King who said to me “there’s 15 FIFA dates in 2013, do you want to play in all of them?”
“Everywhere else teams are scratching around to find funding to play in a handful of games, but not here.” As a player Sermanni made over 250 appearances for Albion Rovers, Blackpool, Torquay United and Dunfermline before making the move down under. “I never went out there with the intention of staying, but after playing for a few teams in Australia I moved into coaching,” he insists.
“I got involved with the Australian Institute of Sport. We don’t really have anything like that in Scotland, but it’s basically a state-run under 20s football programme. At that time players like Mark Viduka and Kevin Muscat were in the set-up and Craig Moore was just coming in as I left.”
An opportunity to design and establish a women’s football programme was soon presented to Sermanni and he took it. “I never ever thought I’d get involved with women’s football, to be honest. When women’s football became an Olympic sport it became eligible for government funding. I was approached to put the programme together basically from scratch and that appealed to me.”
Just under 20 years after Sermanni was trusted with the development of women’s football, it is now the fastest growing team sport in Australia. But although Sermanni now takes charge of a national side in good health, his experience of establishing professional women’s football in Australia will be of great value to his new employers.
With league reconstruction dominating the agenda in Scottish football, the topic is also a pertinent one for Sermanni in his new role Stateside. Despite the popularity of the women’s game in the US four different professional league set-ups have folded in little over a decade. “It’s a strange one,” Sermanni added. “Of all the countries in the world you’d think this is where a successful professional league could be instigated. They’re starting another new league this year, although it’s backed by the USSF itself, rather than private investors this time. So that should make a big difference.
“The female players in the US national team are as well known as the male players in the US national team. They’re big celebrities over here. That’ll help the league too.”
But for all their talent and prowess (American Abby Wambach was named FIFA World Player of the Year for 2012, with Alex Morgan finishing third in the voting) Sermanni’s appointment comes with expectation. The pressure is on to me to win the World Cup (in 2015),” he said. “America hasn’t won it since 1999, and that was on home soil, so they’re very keen to win it back. That’s the target. That’s why I’m here.”
Scotland travel to Jacksonville, Florida (where over 10,000 tickets have been sold already) to face Sermanni’s side on 9 February before making the journey to Nashville, Tennessee four days later to complete the double-header.
“Scottish women’s football has gained quite a strong reputation over the past few years,” added Sermanni. “Anna (Signeul – Scotland team manager) has done a terrific job since she came in. She hasn’t just run the national team, she’s taken a real interest in the game holistically; the development part of it, the league structure, everything. She’s really turned things around.”