This season, The Athletic is following Union Berlin, a Bundesliga club from the former East Germany who were playing regional-level football less than 20 years ago, on their inaugural Champions League journey for our series Iron In The Blood.
Is the Premier League still on course for an extra Champions League spot?
As Union Berlin’s players drifted down the tunnel and the stands in Braga’s Municipal Stadium emptied to the tune of one last song over the PA system, Marie-Louise Eta stood alone by the side of the pitch for a moment, lost in her thoughts.
Union had just picked up a second successive point in the Champions League on the road — that was the good news.
The bad news was that Union had carelessly squandered a lead against a team that had played with 10 men for more than an hour, leaving the Bundesliga club’s hopes of finishing third in Group C and qualifying for the knockout stage of the Europa League, hanging by a thread.
On top of that, Union’s winless run had been extended to 16 matches in all competitions and the team’s mental fragility was painfully exposed after Braga equalised. For a period, it felt like Braga had the extra player.
Eta had plenty to ponder in that respect.
But there was another storyline for Eta to try to take in: the 32-year-old had just created history by becoming the first woman to be part of a coaching team in a men’s Champions League match.
Promoted to the role of interim assistant coach just over a fortnight ago after Union and their long-serving manager Urs Fischer agreed to part ways, Eta has become a trailblazer for the small but increasing number of women working in the men’s game.
Her presence in the dugout alongside Nenad Bjelica, Union’s new coach, felt like a personal triumph for a woman who has been obsessed with football ever since she was a small child, and a landmark moment for the sport.
“It’s not a conscious decision (to appoint) a woman. That almost discredits this decision,” said Dirk Zingler, Union’s president. “She is a fully qualified soccer coach and that’s exactly how I see her, whether it’s a woman or a man.”
Promoting Eta to work with Union’s first-team squad was straightforward in the eyes of Zingler. Marco Grote, the club’s under-19 coach, had been asked to take charge of the first team on a temporary basis following Fischer’s exit after five years at the helm, and Eta was Grote’s assistant.
Logic dictated that Eta, who has held a UEFA Pro Licence since April and had coached youth teams at Werder Bremen and within the German Football Federation since retiring from playing at the age of 26, would step up with Grote.
Except it soon became clear that not everyone outside of Union saw it that way.
It felt telling that when Kicker magazine ran the story about Eta’s new role on their Facebook page, they turned off comments.
Old-school opinions (that’s a polite way of putting it at times) still make a lot of noise in football, particularly on social media, where some people felt that it should be the best man for the role of interim assistant coach at Union, rather than the best person.
Maik Barthel, the chief executive of the agency Eurosportsmanagement and a former representative of Barcelona striker Robert Lewandowski, was among those who held that view.
In a social media post that led to one of his leading clients terminating his relationship with him, Barthel accused Union Berlin of making German football “look ridiculous” by giving Eta, who was a Champions League winner with Turbine Potsdam in her playing days, a role with the first team.
Responding on Twitter to Union’s announcement about Eta, Barthel posted: “An assistant coach has to be in the locker room Union? Please don’t make German football look ridiculous. It was already enough that the team’s hierarchy was completely destroyed with transfers.”
It turned out that Barthel was out of touch with how his own players felt, let alone the views of Zingler and Union Berlin.
Although Barthel subsequently deleted the message because of the backlash and posted another — “I have to rephrase it. Making a co-coach an issue will not help Union to put the destroyed team hierarchy back in order” — the damage was done.
Kevin Schade, the 22-year-old Germany international and Brentford forward, terminated his agreement with Barthel with immediate effect.
“I parted ways with my agent because I absolutely do not share his attitude and views,” Schade said. “I stand for openness, equality and diversity. And that’s how I want to feel represented.”
Barthel has since apologised and said it was never “my aim to make Ms Eta the focus of my message or to discredit her”. He did, however, go on to say in an interview with Kicker that he believed Union were trying to “generate good press and distract attention from their own mistakes”. In other words, promoting Eta was some sort of publicity stunt.
This week, it transpired that Barthel has lost another client — Maximilian Beier, the talented Hoffenheim forward and Germany Under-21 international. Beier has not spoken about his reasons for changing agents but people will join up the dots.
It is not surprising that Union have been inundated with interview requests for Eta over the last fortnight. It is also not surprising that Eta has no desire to say anything right now, making the point to club officials that assistant coaches wouldn’t normally speak to the media.
Instead, Eta has quietly gone about her work on the training pitch and on matchdays — she oversaw the ball-related work in the warm-up against Braga and was giving tactical advice to Kevin Volland during a break in play in the first half — while leaving others to answer questions on her behalf.
“The collaboration with Marie-Louise Eta is on an equal footing,” Grote said before Saturday’s Bundesliga match against Augsburg, when Volland scored an 88th-minute equaliser to lift Union off the bottom of the table and end a run of nine consecutive league defeats. “There are no big differences. We divide it up completely.”
Asked about the significance of gender, Grote replied: “In the coaching booth, it’s all about a human fit. Whether someone is a little taller, maybe has a bigger belly or what T-shirt they wear, long hair, short hair — I don’t give a damn.”
That Augsburg game was a milestone for Eta and the Bundesliga.
“The day has finally come for us to see a woman in the male domain of football, “said Julia Simic, the TV pundit and former Germany international. “She definitely has the expertise to fill this role.”
Although Grote returned to his under-19 position following Bjelica’s appointment on Sunday, Union announced that Eta would continue working with the first team until assistant coach Sebastian Bonig, who has been given a period of extended leave for personal reasons, returns to his post.
Women have held senior positions in men’s teams before, albeit generally operating at a lower professional, or semi-professional, level.
When my colleague Oliver Kay wrote about League Two Forest Green Rovers’ decision to promote Hannah Dingley to interim head coach last summer, he listed several similar examples going back over the last couple of decades, including the case of Imke Wubbenhorst.
In 2018, BV Cloppenburg, then struggling in Germany’s fifth tier, appointed Wubbenhorst as their head coach. She had previously played for the club’s women’s team where, coincidentally, Eta was one of her team-mates.
In that sense, Wubbenhorst has an insight not only into Eta as a person (“very calm”) and a player (“very intelligent”) but also the world that she is stepping into — a place that can throw up some strange questions at times.
At Cloppenburg, Wubbenhorst was once asked whether players are forced to cover themselves up when she enters the dressing room. She replied sarcastically: “Of course not. I’m a professional. I pick the team on penis size.”
Speaking more recently, in an interview with Deutsche Welle last week, Wubbenhorst was candid about the challenges that women such as Eta are confronted with in the men’s game.
She described how players “are not impressed with your career from the beginning” when you are a female coach, talked about football being “a man’s game” in Europe, and said that significant change will take time.
“When you are the first person to do something, it’s hard because the media look at every word you say… but when you are the second or third, it will be so much easier,” Wubbenhorst explained. “The management of the clubs have to see that it works. So they will (then) decide more often to choose a woman for this position.”
Eta’s own path has not been straightforward. “I noticed that some people treated me differently compared to before, and that is not always comfortable,” she told UEFA last month in an interview, which took place before her promotion at Union, about her coaching journey.
“But I’ve always tried not to think about that and to focus on the important things. I’ve always tried not to put the focus on the fact that I am a woman. It’s not about women or men, or whether a man is good for a women’s team, it’s always about diversity.”
According to Grote, Eta was quickly accepted by Union’s under-19 players when she arrived in the summer, and the word is that it has been no different with the club’s first-team squad.
Perhaps the more relevant question, given some of the wider reaction, is whether Germany is ready to embrace a female coach operating at this level.
“Definitely Germany is ready,” says Stephan Uersfeld, a reporter for ntv.de. “You have to brush aside all the stuff you see on social media. We’ve had female coaches in the minor leagues before — they weren’t successful. But she (Eta) has got all the skills, she’s done all the courses that male coaches do.
“If you speak to the people at the club, they are convinced she can do it. And it’s a club like Union Berlin, which is quite the opposite of what has been mostly reported in the international media — it’s quite a conservative club. So if they say she’s ready, you’ve got to trust them. And why shouldn’t you trust a woman with this job?
“The culture is changing. You see it on TV — we’ve got female pundits everywhere now. Football is opening up. There are two final barriers — women coaching in the men’s game and the homosexual players who still remain silent. Those are the final barriers to fall to see football arrive in the 21st century.”
(Photos: Getty Images; graphic: Sam Richardson)