Anna Signeul sees bright future as Scotland’s women eye play-off place

SCOTLAND women’s coach Anna Signeul faces one of the toughest challenges of her seven years in charge on Thursday when the Republic of Ireland visit Tynecastle for a Euro 2013 qualifier.

A home win would take Signeul’s team second behind France in Group 4, and therefore in pole position to make the play-offs. Defeat would put them five points behind the Irish with just four games to play.

The national team have made significant progress since the Swede, now 50, succeeded Vera Pauw in 2005. Last year they beat England for the first time in more than 30 years and they have risen to new heights in the world rankings.

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But qualification for the finals of a major tournament has so far eluded them. Four years ago they reached the Euro play-offs, only to lose to Russia. This year, in a cut-throat group which also includes Wales and Israel, even getting to the play-offs is proving tough.

On the face of it, Saturday’s 2-0 loss to France in Le Havre, was a setback, but it was actually a better performance than Scotland’s rivals have managed against the group favourites. “They are maybe the best team in Europe just now,” Signeul said of the French. “They were fantastic.

“We did very well, but we couldn’t sustain it the whole game. Unfortunately, they are a little bit ahead of us and I think we’re a bit unlucky to have them in the group. They had a fantastic World Cup last year and came fourth and, since then, have developed even more.”

Besides coaching the national team, Signeul has a wider remit to develop the women’s game throughout the country. She is convinced that the players themselves have become far more professional in their outlook, even though most are still amateurs, and thinks that the wider public are also learning to be more supportive and appreciate of women’s football.

“We’ve changed so much in the women’s game. I think the most important thing, and what I spent the first years with, was changing attitudes. The players’ own attitudes towards becoming an elite athlete have changed.

“They are elite athletes now. Our players are training a lot and we’re doing it not even being semi-professional. The players are amateurs: we’re asking them to do a lot. But they love it and they do it.

“And we want to change people’s mindsets in general about women’s football, because we think it’s a product which is worthy of recognition. I think that’s changing as well. I think it’s really positive, especially when people come to games. Not every game we play very well, but I think people appreciate it’s a different game. It’s not men’s football that we play. We have skills in Scotland, technical players.”

The club game has made steady progress too, with national champions Glasgow City having this season become the first Scottish team to reach the last 16 of the Champions League. But there is still a long way to go, as was painfully demonstrated when City lost 17-0 on aggregate to German champions Turbine Potsdam.

The 2010 Champions League winners, Potsdam were founded in 1971 by the man who remains their head coach today, Bernd Schroeder. So they have decades of expertise behind them and Signeul was not shocked by the thrashing the Germans inflicted on their Scottish opponents. “No, it wasn’t a shock for me. When you come to that club level, the best clubs in Europe have the best players, not just from their own country but from others. Olympique Lyonnais, for example, have the best Swedish player. So club football is even more difficult at that top level than international football.

“Potsdam have resources so they can bring in some Japanese players or Swedish players. Tradition is massive in the game. Potsdam know the key to success. The best clubs have the expertise.

“We definitely have potential, and that’s the most important thing. The quality of the players coming up is fantastic. The under-17s beat Sweden just a couple of weeks ago, and the under-19s have beaten some of the best teams in Europe. So we definitely have the potential. We just need even more support now at club level, from employers, for example, to allow the players to train at better times.”

For anyone who remains sceptical or worse about women’s football, Signeul has a simple answer. Come to a match. It will force you to change your preconceptions. “These players can play wonderful football and that’s what we’re going to prove here on Thursday,” she added. “And it’s a fantastic atmosphere; a good environment to take your kids to.

“It’s going to be very tough. We have Wales and Ireland in the group, and that’s always a battle. But if we can put in the effort we did against France, we have a fantastic chance to win the game.”

• Scotland v France kicks off at 7pm on Thursday at Tynecastle. Tickets are available on the gate, priced £5 and £2.