Hong Kong trailblazer Chan Yuen-ting became the first woman coach to take a men’s football team to a top-flight title thanks to the toughness that earned her the nickname “beefball” and a teenage crush on David Beckham.
Chan, 27, led Eastern Sports Club to win Hong Kong’s Premier League in April for the first time in 21 years.
It was Chan’s debut season as head coach and earned her a Guinness World Record as the first woman coach ever to win a men’s championship title in a top national football league.
Her path into the game started as a 13-year-old, when she became glued to watching Manchester United games on TV and, in particular, their England legend Beckham, whom she swooned over as “handsome”.
The crush soon developed into a love of the game itself and propelled her into a football coaching career, despite opposition from her parents.
“I think no matter your age or your gender, what you need is hard work,” Chan told AFP.
“You are nothing if your team is doing badly.”
“On the pitch I forget my gender as a woman. I just hope to show my abilities.”
After playing amateur football for university teams and representing Hong Kong, Chan decided to take the coaching track so she could break into the men’s professional game.
She went from assistant coach to head coach at Eastern in December after her predecessor accepted an offer from a club in mainland China.
Since then, she has set out to win the players’ respect, spending hours dissecting match videos and statistics to demonstrate her deep knowledge of the game.
“If I show them videos and data I can convince them what I think is correct,” says Chan.
“You have to trust science. It is leading modern football.”
At a training session in Hong Kong, eagle-eyed Chan, dressed in a black tracksuit, takes her place in the centre of team passing drills and quietly watches, sometimes running alongside the players.
“I keep listening to them and like communicating with them,” she says.
If Chan had listened to her parents, she would not be where she is now.
Worried she would have no future in football, they tried to persuade her to take up art or dancing instead.
But, determined to pursue her Beckham-inspired career, she faked her mother’s signature as a teenager to apply for a football training programme.
“I felt football was exciting, then I started playing,” says Chan.
She studied geography at university, graduating in 2010, and went on to work as a data analyst at Hong Kong team Pegasus, where she was later assistant coach.
“My family asked me to leave football as they think the salary is not high and the future is not stable. But I didn’t listen to them… I’m tough,” Chan says.
Her never-say-die personality led her friends to give her the nickname “beefball”. It plays on her name “yuen” which sounds like the Cantonese word for ball. The “beef” was added to reflect her resilience.
As well as winning more titles with Eastern, she now hopes to gain experience overseas with top clubs and bring it back to Hong Kong.
The men’s national team stands at a lowly 155th in the world rankings and there are limited football facilities in the densely populated southern Chinese finance hub.
Many teams do not have a home ground. Eastern train on a rugby pitch.
“We don’t have our own training centres… we do our best within limited resources,” says Chan.
Despite difficulties, she says she is satisfied with her coaching role, which she works full-time.
“Even if I don’t succeed, I’m enjoying my life because I have a career that comes from my hobby.”
And she still harbours a childhood dream to meet Beckham one day.
“I have to say thanks to him,” she adds.