Helena Costa was supposed to blaze a new trail for women in male professional sport. She backed away today under a barrage of misogynist gibes, including several by the French football club chairman who had hired her.
Ms Costa, 37, last month became the manager of Clermont Foot 63 in the French second division – the first woman ever appointed to manage a men’s professional club at such a high level. But the Portuguese coach confirmed that she was resigning her post without ever meeting her players. Ms Costa, the former manager of the Iranian and Qatari women’s teams, said her reasons for leaving were “purely personal”.
She said: “Only the president of the club knows the reason for my decision. I hope that this will not damage the chances of other women.”
However, Clermont Foot 63’s president, Claude Michy, said that he had been given “no rational explanation” for Ms Costa’s abrupt departure. “She’s a woman,” he said. “They are capable of leading us to believe in certain things and then…She simply said ‘I’m going.’”
He added: “Was she scared? I don’t know. We couldn’t make her change her mind. She leaves with her secret intact. I am not the first man to be deserted by a woman.”
Ms Costa’s decision also generated an avalanche of misogynist commentary online. Her appointment last month made headlines around the world. Clermont Foot 63’s decision was variously greeted at the time as a leap forward for the women’s game and a publicity stunt.
Sonia Saouid, a local beauty queen turned football agent who helped to recruit Ms Costa, criticised the decision.
“I don’t recognise the Helena Costa we saw at a press conference last month,” she said. “I am sad and angry for all the women who would like to have been in her place. I am angry because she has made a selfish decision.”
At the press conference to confirm her appointment on 22 May, Ms Costa said: “The impact of my appointment was huge, but I want people to look at me like a normal person and to judge my work as if I were a man. It is a pleasure to take this position but like men, if I do not have results, I will be fired like any other coach.”
Officials at the club were at a loss to explain her abrupt departure. Reports suggested that she had clashed with the club’s technical adviser. Sources in the club said there had been an exchange of words but nothing dramatic enough to explain her departure.
Mr Michy has been struggling for years to bring publicity and success to a club which has been overshadowed by the rise of Clermont-Auvergne, the city’s rugby team. He said that he had already had 45 applications for the manager’s job “but none from a woman”.
Ms Costa’s decision to leave before her first season began provoked a storm of comments on French social media today. One Clermont fan said that she would go down as the perennially struggling club’s finest ever manger. “She is the only one never to have lost a match,” he said.