French side appoint ex-Celtic scout as female coach

FRENCH Ligue 2 side Clermont Foot have announced they will be managed by a woman next season, with Helena Costa appointed as head coach.

Helena Costa, pictured during her time coaching the Qatar women's team. Picture: Miguel Boavida
Helena Costa, pictured during her time coaching the Qatar women's team. Picture: Miguel Boavida

UNTIL now, it was a scenario firmly stuck in the realms of fantasy, as portrayed by actress Cherie Lunghi 25 years ago in the Channel 4 football drama series The Manageress.

But a female manager of a male professional team will become a reality next month when Helena Costa, who spent three years as part of Celtic’s European scouting network, takes charge of French Ligue 2 club Clermont Foot. It is a case of life imitating art as 36-year-old Costa, like Lunghi’s character Gabriella Benson, takes charge of a struggling second-tier club with ambitions of achieving top-flight football.

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Costa’s ground-breaking appointment was sanctioned by Clermont Foot president Claude Michy, a French motorsport and boxing promoter, who chose the Portuguese ahead of several male candidates.

With a Uefa A coaching licence and a Master’s degree in sports science, Costa’s most recent job was in charge of the Iranian women’s national team, which she left after failing to qualify for next year’s Fifa Women’s World Cup finals.

Costa began her coaching career at Benfica with the female youth team, during which time she also worked with non-league male team Cheleirense and Portugal’s most successful women’s team, SU 1 Dezembro, whom she led into the Uefa Women’s Champions League.

She also spent time with Chelsea on a voluntary basis in 2005, studying the methods of Jose Mourhino and his coaching staff as she developed her ambitions.

In 2008, she was enlisted to the Celtic scouting network which was being extended by the club’s football development manager, John Park, following his move from Hibs the previous year. Although not directly involved with any of the major signings made by Celtic during her association with the club, her input was highly valued and she also helped provide information on future European opponents.

“The club had the courage to bet on me,” said Costa of her scouting duties with Celtic in an interview with a Portuguese newspaper.

“I must stress this – and for all I know, I am the only woman in the world to do this. [My role] is something of great responsibility, because there are investments of millions, which allows me to be in top-level men’s football. Opportunities for women in this world are not so many.

“This side of football is very interesting and I’m loving it.”

Celtic were quick to express their delight at Costa’s historic appointment at Clermont Foot yesterday. “We would like to congratulate Helena sincerely on taking up this new role,” said a Celtic spokesperson. “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.”

Costa relinquished her Celtic connection in 2011 to become coach of the Qatar women’s national team before going on to her unsuccessful stint with Iran.

At Clermont Foot, she will find a club in some disarray when she begins work next month.

They are currently 14th in the French second tier, albeit safe from relegation, and have embarked on a squad clear-out. Costa will at least find one kindred spirit in the shape of Veronique Soulier, the female president of the Clermont Foot Supporters’ Club.

“It surprised us when we read the club statement about a woman being the new coach,” said Soulier. “But once we got over it, we all believe that it is a good thing.

“The boys in the team can be difficult to manage. They can be quite sensitive, that is what the other coaches have told us. With a woman in charge, maybe they will be less demanding.”

In The Manageress, Cherie Lunghi successfully overcame opposition to her radical appointment by leading her second-tier club into the top flight of English football at the first attempt. The drama was discontinued after just two series, perhaps regarded as simply too fanciful.

It will be intriguing to see if Costa can show footballing truth to be stranger than fiction.