Hong Kong’s Chan Yuen-ting will smash another hole through football’s glass ceiling when she makes history in the AFC Champions League on Wednesday — but it couldn’t be a tougher debut for the trailblazing female coach.
Chan, nicknamed “Beef Ball” and just 28 years old, will etch her name in the record books as the first woman worldwide to lead a professional men’s team into continental competition, at the helm of Hong Kong’s Eastern.
The game is not far from Hong Kong, in southern mainland China — but it is against Guangzhou Evergrande, the mega-rich “Manchester United of Asia” with two Champions League titles and six straight domestic trophies to their name.
But for Chan, who last year became the first female coach to win a top-flight men’s league, it will be an honour to face Evergrande and their World Cup-winning manager, Brazil’s Luiz Felipe Scolari.
“I never imagined or expected this could happen but now we’re going to play against him so I feel excited and I’m looking forward to meeting him,” she told the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) website.
“All I need to do is focus on our team and concentrate on the work that we are doing.”
Chan’s ground-breaking 2016 Hong Kong title with Eastern made headlines around the globe, and earned her the AFC’s coach of the year award and a place in a BBC list of the world’s 100 most influential women.
Eastern then became Hong Kong’s first club to be handed an automatic berth in the Champions League group stage, thanks to the recent performances of the city’s teams in AFC competitions.
Chan said Eastern would concentrate on defending on Wednesday — understandably, against a team which can call on the Brazilian firepower of Paulinho, Ricardo Goulart and Alan.
‘I forget my gender’
“We need to focus on defence, and especially our discipline and attitude during the match,” Chan said.
“At this moment I don’t want to create extra pressure for myself and my players so we just want to do our best and try to go as far as we can.”
Chan, whose nickname “Beef Ball” refers to her competitive spirit and is often chanted by Eastern’s fans, first caught the football bug when she was 13 and had a crush on David Beckham.
She followed Manchester United games on TV and her passion eventually led her into coaching, despite opposition from her parents.
“On the pitch I forget my gender as a woman. I just hope to show my abilities,” Chan told AFP last year. “I think no matter your age or your gender, what you need is hard work.”
Hong Kong Football Association chief executive Mark Sutcliffe said Chan had become a shining light for women involved in sport across the world.
“We are proud that Hong Kong has provided an opportunity for a female coach to operate at the highest level,” Sutcliffe told AFP.
“I am sure she will act as an inspiration for women in sport across the world,” he said, adding: “(But) let’s not kid ourselves – it’s going to be very, very tough.”
Evergrande will be gunning for their third Champions League title in five years, and as an added incentive real-estate billionaire club chairman Hui Kayan has offered a 300 million yuan ($43.68 million) bonus per win in the tournament.
But whatever the result on Wednesday, the debut of Chan and Eastern will remain a significant moment for women in football, and for the sport in Asia.
“It is a ground-breaking moment for football in Asia, for the women’s game and for the global game,” said AFC president Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa.
“The world will be watching.”