Step up and let step up
I caught the football bug from my dad. He played amateur football. One way or another, everyone one was into sports back in those days. Dad coached me at great length and took me to training. I owe him a lot.
For starters, I played with neighbourhood kids in the yard. When I was six or seven, I joined the boys at the football class in my school. I was the only girl on my neighbourhood team. They struggled to accept me at first, but they got used to me eventually. We became friends, and they came to treat me as their equal.
I joined a girls’ soccer team at Tsaritsino when I was 10. We lived a Skhodnenskaya, and I would travel to Tsaritsino after school almost every day. It was a two-hour trip one way, followed by two hours of training. I came home at around 10 in the evening. I often had to do my homework on the Metro. It was a pretty hard life, especially since my parents watched my grades very closely. My mother actually disapproved of this football fad of mine. She didn’t think football was for girls, and wanted me to do gymnastics instead. Eventually, when I was 12 or 13, she realized it wasn’t just a fad, and football could be my career path.
I had my moments of doubt, too. Those moments are barriers to overcome: either you step up, or you quit. I got lucky. I was called up to the national squad very early, when I was only 14. It was my chance to experience what it feels like to play for the nation’s top team, and it gave me a powerful incentive to stick with football. It is important for a coach to be able to let the player step up and feel the exhilaration that comes with it.
I was blessed with some excellent coaches. My school coach, Mikhail Andreev, gave himself completely to his job, like a good kids’ coach should. Our girls’ team had great coaches, too, who were very passionate about what they did. Their enthusiasm made a real difference at a time when girls’ soccer was exotic. One had to reach out and tell people about it, going to great lengths to convince the girls to come to training, and organize the training process. There is a choice of football schools to go to nowadays. Back then, there was only one, the one in Tsaritsino. We couldn’t complain, though: we played all kinds of tournaments, and travelled all over the world.
The adrenaline makes it worthwhile
A girl footballer faces a difficult choice when she finishes high school. Her parents naturally want her to pick a “real” career and go to college. There’s no major money in girls’ soccer, and a career in professional sports spells hard work, a lot of training and possibly injuries. There are all these international tournaments to play, which means you are out of Moscow most of the year, so how can you possibly study full time? In the end, I contrived to fit everything in. I went to the Moscow National Academy of Physical Culture, graduating with two diplomas: in sports coaching and economics.
At 20, I faced a dilemma: I knew that if I didn’t make the national squad I might as well say goodbye to pro soccer. I make a point of setting myself extra ambitious targets. They took me, listing me 21st of the 23 players. It was 1999, and off we went to the US for the World Cup. I wasn’t mentally prepared to play such a high-profile tournament, and I was overwhelmed. We ended up fifth. Once I had experienced the atmosphere of the planet’s number one football pageant, feeling on top of the world just to be part of it, I wanted to repeat it. This high, this adrenaline rush alone made playing football worth my while.
I was made captain for the next World Cup 2003, and scored many a definitive goal. I’ll never forget our game with Australia. The score was 1-1, I earned a penalty and didn’t score. Ten minutes to go. I get lucky: I score and we win! It was a double win for me: we won as a team, and I had fixed my bad and didn’t let the squad down.
I have played over 100 games for the national squad. On the club circuit, I have played for Izmailovo, CSK VVS, Lada-Togliatti, Noginsk and Spartak. I have travelled the country extensively, as well as the world, but I‘ve been national champion once only, with CSK VVS.
The coach must always be supportive
Footballers always delude themselves that they will play forever. I was no exception. But one time my doctor suggested that maybe I should take it easy on playing. I realized it was time to regroup and began to seriously consider coaching as a career segue. Dmitry Sablin, who leads FC Rossiyanka and is a good friend of the national squad’s and of mine, invited me to Rossiyanka as a backup coach, for a kind of on-the-job training.
My first coach’s coach was a French guy. Then there was a German, who wasn’t too willing to share his priceless expertise, so I had to do a fair amount of sneak peeking, figuring things out on my own. All of a sudden, Sablin goes and fires that coach, and tells me: “The team is yours now. Coach it good.” You know, sometimes they will kick a person off the boat into the water as a fast-track method to teach him how to swim. That’s how I felt. The year was 2013, and I was 33. I didn’t think I was ready, I worried like crazy, but the stress did me good. I think I started to grow professionally thanks to it. And I’m grateful to Dmitry Sablin for believing in me.
My first year, I coached like a player. It couldn’t be avoided. I coached my players and guided them like I was one of them, playing the field. I had played with many Rossiyanka girls on the national squad. That notwithstanding, I won their hearts and minds fairly soon. They could see I was edgy, they would come up to me and comfort me: “Don’t worry, Elena Aleksandrovna. It’s going to be alright.”
When you’re coaching a team of girls, you better be a good psychologist, and you have to be strong so the girls can fall back on you, their friend. All this came easier to me as a woman: after all, I think like my players think. When they come down to breakfast in the morning, I can see who didn’t sleep well, and I can see when there’s something wrong. They feel more comfortable talking to a woman coach about their feelings and their problems. When I played, my knees would tremble when I had to approach the male coach. It was difficult to say anything or ask him what he thought of my playing. Being a woman coach, any of my players can come to me any time: I’m always there for them.
The girls are so sensitive. You have to couch your words very carefully, because anything the coach says can rob them of their self-confidence. The thing about guys is, their self-confidence is usually unshakable, they think they’re hardcore. Not that girls need to hear something like “way to go!” or “you’re the best!” all the time, but you have to tell them honestly what you think about their playing: “you’re not doing this quite right, let’s try a little harder…” If you’re not straight with them, they’re going to know. But the coach must always be supportive. Few coaches in Russia know how to give praise. And the right kind of praise, given at the right time, means the world to these girls. You can do a good job coaching the team and leading it, but if the girls do not feel your support, they will hit the field unsure of themselves. They make a mistake and everything will just go downhill from there on out.
The hardest decision for the coach is to fire a player. The line-up cannot stay the same forever, players have to be replaced sometimes. It’s tough when you have to tell a player she’s no longer needed. It’s equally hard to explain why some players get to play a tournament, and others do not. But it’s all right as long as the coach always tells the truth and makes everyone see that her selection is based on fair judgment. However, sometimes you have to put pressure on your players to make them see the purpose and objectives of the club. And Rossiyanka isn’t just any club: it has a long history, five national championship wins and Champions’ League membership under its belt.
A coach must never stop to learn and improve. I’m studying at the Academy of Coaching Excellence. I’ve got to Grade B, and I’m going for Grade A now. There is no top limit for a coach. If you catch yourself thinking: “I’m so great, I know everything!” you’re finished and it’s time to quit. At the start of my career, criticism used to hurt. Now I realize that criticism delivers a lesson to be learned. Any coach makes mistakes. We are only human, working with other humans, working under pressure, and our decisions are far from always right. The more experience we get, positive or negative, the better. Football is all about the nuances. No matter how well you know football big picture-wise, there will always be certain nuances that can only be discovered with experience.
I did not expect to be placed in charge of the national squad
They offered me to take over the Russia national squad in the autumn of 2015. The then-coach Nikolai Lavrentiev’s contract was up. The trade-off was, either to renew his contract or find a new coach for a change. As far as I know, FIFA and UEFA both encourage women’s teams to be coached by women. I did not expect this appointment, I’d never even thought about it. But someone had referred me, and thankfully, Vitaly Mutko okayed my appointment.
This is colossal responsibility for me: national honour is at stake. But it’s precisely the pressure of the responsibility vested in me that gives me the strength to work harder and do a better job. The task at hand is for us to make the Euro finals. We have five playoff matches coming, and we have to win every single one. We are also playing this tournament in Portugal, where we get to play against such formidable rivals as Brazil, New Zealand, and the host team, Portugal. It is important to play friendlies with strong opponents, so you don’t get scared when you have to play Germany or the US later. We are yet to clear this psychological barrier out of our way.
Girls’ soccer is barely noticeable in Russia
Girls’ soccer is barely noticeable in Russia, to my regret. When we landed 5th place at World Cup 1999, there was a small upswing of interest in girls’ soccer, and some new teams popped up. Nowadays there are only 5 teams left on the women’s national championship out of 14. Girls’ soccer went without any promotion for years. Now that Vitaly Mutko is back on the Russian Football Union things may be about to change. He’s supportive of girls’ soccer and he helps us in every way. Our games are broadcast live on TV now when we play on home turf or overseas. The RFS site provides good coverage of girls’ soccer. What we want is more coverage from the mainstream sports media.
Girls’ soccer is not the same in Russia as it is in Europe, which has a lot of clubs to pick and choose from. We don’t have large educational institutions with girls’ soccer in Russia. And we don’t have mixed boy-and-girl training facilities, so at age 12 or 13, our kids fall behind Europe in football. Playing with boys extramurally gave me a huge impetus years ago. It’s a different kind of football. It’s faster, tougher, and boys are faster decision-makers. If I had played with girls only, it’s not a cinch I would have made it to the national squad.
Girls’ football is naturally different from boys’. This is not to say that we never play rough. But women play slower due to physiology, so their play is more elegant, and their passes and fakes are all so graphic. To boot, girls are so docile. You tell her to “do this like this,” and she’ll keep doing it like that throughout the game. The problem is, few of them are able to improvise according to situation.
The question of family, of kids, hovers perennially over girls’ soccer. Few girls can do both. On policy level, the management of Rossiyanka encourages the girls to get married and have kids at 24 or 25 and then come back. I did when I was a bit older than that. But I don’t think girls today are ready for it at that age, what with the constant field trips, training and travel. They have never had to fend for themselves, some never even had to cook for themselves, and many of them have never lived away from their parents. I’m practically like a mother to them, all these 26 extra daughters that I have in addition to my biological daughter. I look after each and every one, and I know everything about them.
Women coaches are few and far between
Girls typically play football until the age of 35 or so, unless they get seriously injured earlier. After that, some will get jobs teaching kids soccer, and others will pick an entirely different career. Few get to the level of “adult” football. There are, literally, only a couple of women coaches in Russian women’s pro football: Tatiana Zaitseva in Krasnodar and Natalia Barbashina in Ryazan.
Men’s football is out of the question. I don’t think a woman coach would be tolerated there. Even such reputable coaches as Capello or Slutsky have to pass the team test. Can you picture a girl coach taking a test like that? You think they’ll treat her professionally, with respect? Not likely. They’re probably going to laugh at her. For the sake of fairness, when I visited Slutsky’s national squad training sessions, the guys were nice to me, both coaches and players. Jokes were cracked, to be sure, along the lines of “those girls you coach, any lookers in the bunch?” But no one was mean or arrogant. Everyone knows girls’ soccer is a legit pro sport these days, it’s on the Olympic programme. I hope the sentiment about girls’ soccer keeps changing for the better.