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Playing A Man's Game

Unknown Monday, April 13, 2009 ,
Football is a man's game. The only times that women should feature in the world of the beautiful game is either when they're at the side of their player boyfriends or else when they're watching a game. And, in the case of the latter, they probably only do this to check out players' bodies rather than for any real passion for the game. After all, it is well known that women don't understand the offside rule and cheer at all the wrong moments.

While such views might seem extremely chauvinistic, the truth is that they are also surprisingly widespread. Take FIFA president Sepp Blatter who, a couple of years back, famously claimed that women playing football should wear tighter outfits to make the game more interesting.

Despite such condescending views, however, the popularity of the women's game is on the increase. A professional league has just been re-established in America whilst the likes of England and France are closing the gap with the traditional European powerhouses of Norway and Germany thanks to a huge surge in participation.

In Malta it is a similar story with a league that has been thriving for the past decade and a national team that is getting better with each game. Yet the real signs of progress lie in the number of girls' teams that are popping up all over with the nurseries that previously used to cater exclusively for boys now starting to open up. That these girls will now have access to coaching from an early age should be the key to future success.

It is a completely different situation to when Maria Coppola was starting out some twenty years back. One of the pioneers of the women’s game in Malta, by playing at a professional level abroad she has achieved the sort of success that most of her male counterparts don’t even dream of.

“I always loved playing football,” she recounts. “I don’t know where the passion came from, even though my father used to take me to watch games. At the time there weren’t any girls’ teams so I was always playing against boys. I don’t think that the boys really noticed that much the fact that I was a girl, it was only a case of whether I could play or not. So that’s how I spent most of my childhood, playing football in grounds near where I lived.”

In hindsight, that could have been the making of her. Whilst there’s a lot to be said for today’s structured coaching systems, nothing beats the lessons one learns playing such ad-hoc games: they provide the ideal platform to practice until you perfect your skills. And, in Maria’s case, they exposed her to the more physical nature of the game which might not have been the case had she been playing with other girls.

Eventually, she graduated to an all girls’ team even though at the time the lack of players meant that the best they could hope for were five-a-side games. At the time, women playing football were still seen as some freaks. “People did find it strange that I was a girl playing football but I didn’t really mind. There were those who asked my parents why they were letting me play football but, thankfully, they never gave in. In fact, I owe my parents a lot because it would have been easy for them to tell me to stop yet they realized how much I loved playing and were happy for me to do so.”

If playing football was Maria’s passion, doing so abroad was a burning ambition. “I always wanted to play football at a higher level and that meant doing so overseas. At the time I didn’t know how I was going to get there but it was my aim.”

The opportunity to do so quickly presented itself. A talent scout spotted her playing and liked what he saw. He put forward the possibility of a sports scholarship in America and she promptly accepted. Not yet out of her teens, she was about to move to the other side of the world to follow her dream.

“It was a huge experience. I remember arriving in this massive airport without having a clue what I had to do and where I was to go. But I quickly found my bearings and the people where very helpful. On a personal level, I learned to be independent. In fact, if you ask me what is the most important lesson that I brought back with me, that is probably it.”

If the American experience was a great life lesson, it was just as successful on the playing front.

“Playing for the Redskins in Oklahoma, in 1996/97 I ranked as number one in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics Division 1 polls during the regular season and made two straight appearances in the NAIA national tournament, with a best finish of third overall.”

“In 1998/99 we were the Southwest region champions at which point I switched to the Eagles selection where I enjoyed my best performances and was named among the all-regional best.”

“I was a good player but what made me stand out was the fact that I was left-footed. There aren’t many left sided midfielders which game me an advantage but I also put in a lot of hard work. I used to love training and I had to really do my best to keep on improving.”

Eventually, she returned to Malta where the women’s league was kicking off and played for a number of teams including Lija, Melita, Rabat and Hamrun. She even had a brief taste of national team football before setting off for another experience abroad.

“I had made contacts in France and in 2004 moved to Third Division side Le Peb. It was semi-professional level of football but I still enjoyed it a lot. It also opened up the possibility of new opportunities and indeed I went for a trial with top French side Paris St. Germain.”

Sadly, that is as far as it got. “Even before leaving for France I hadn’t been feeling well. There was nothing specifically wrong, but I simply used to feel tired quite faster. The doctors couldn’t find anything wrong and I put it down to over-training. Yet, as time went by, I started to feel worse.”

Things came to a head in France where she got so bad that she was rushed into hospital. “Eventually the doctors found out that I had meningitis. It was a very tough time being in a foreign country and not knowing what was wrong with you. Thank the Lord, I eventually came through it.”

Even so, her illness meant an abrupt end to her playing career. This, however, didn’t diminish her love of the game and, as had happened a decade earlier, another chance encounter meant that new opportunities opened up.

“I was enjoying a kick-about in the street when a man called Vince Laus approached me and asked if I was interested in coaching. He was in charge of the Under 14 side at Balzan Youths and was looking for an assistant. Up till that point, I had never thought about coaching but it was something that intrigued me so I accepted.”

As with her experience in America, Maria quickly found her bearings. “I immediately enjoyed the involvement in the coaching side and have to say that Balzan have been great with me. They allowed me to assist Vince both with the U14 and even with the U18. There’s not many clubs who would have allowed me such opportunities.”

“Vince eventually decided to leave the club but they still wanted to keep me on board so they offered me the opportunity of coaching the Under 7 side, something that I accepted and am very happy in doing.”

Is it possible for a woman to coach a man’s team, I enquire. “I don’t see the reason why not but, personally, I’m not making any plans. At Balzan there’s a very ambitious project in place to upgrade the facilities in collaboration with Lija Athletics which I’m looking forward to.”

“Above all, I’m simply happy to be involved with football.”

This article appeared in the April 2009 issue of Sunday Circle magazine

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