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‘The Boys Club Is Being Infiltrated Slowly’

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Women’s football in the southern African region has picked up pace in recent years, benefiting from some ground-breaking work across all spheres of the sport. Sue Destombes is a key figure driving it.

The Council of Southern African Football Associations (COSAFA) is leading the charge in women’s football, and particularly so, its Secretary General Sue Destombes, who has overseen the introduction of women’s competitions at Under-17 and Under-20 level, to go with a senior championship, in the last year.

COSAFA has 14 member nations across the region, and industry veteran Destombes is a key figure in driving an ambitious expansion of its operations that last year saw them host six international tournaments in four different countries – South Africa, Mauritius, Malawi and Zambia.

Destombes was recently recognized for her contribution to football with a Lifetime Achievement honor at the 2019 Hollard Sport Industry Awards.

She has been involved with the organization since the first men’s senior COSAFA Cup was played in 1997, and leads a team that has a heavy female influence, along with the head of the COSAFA media office, Lynda Greeff, and long-serving office manager, Nobuhle Masuku, among others.

Sue Destombes COSAFA General Secretary with Janine Van Wyk South Africa Team Captain and Amanda Dlamini Former South Africa Captain help conduct the Draw during the 2019 COSAFA Women Championship Draw on the 03 July 2019 COSAFA House Pic Sydney Mahlangu/ BackpagePix

In what has been typically a male-dominated industry, Destombes has managed to leave her mark not only on COSAFA, but also the Confederation of African Football (CAF) and global governing body FIFA.

“I have never found being a women a barrier to entry in football, and cannot remember any situation where I felt excluded because I am a woman, but that does not mean there is not a ‘boys’ club’ environment,” Destombes tells FORBES AFRICA.

“It is not a problem in the business of football, but maybe on a social level, yes, there can be some exclusion. But I don’t work in football for the social gatherings, so it does not bother me.”

Sue Destombes, Cosafa General Secretary during the 2019 COSAFA U17 Boys draw at COSAFA House, Johannesburg, on 28 August 2019 ©Samuel Shivambu/BackpagePix

Destombes says she is pleased that women are starting to play a greater role in football administration, but says there is a long way to go.

“In the 54 African member associations of FIFA, we only have one female president in Isha Johansen from Sierra Leone. But we are slowly starting to see a change in terms of female representation on executive committees and even within the CAF secretariat.

“FIFA, for the first time in their 116-year history, have a female Secretary General in Fatma Samoura (from Senegal), so maybe the boys’ club is being infiltrated slowly.”

Destombes has been determined to help grow the women’s game in the COSAFA region – but not just for players.

COSAFA’s mandate includes upskilling coaches, match officials and even administrators, who all gain valuable experience, not only from the tournaments that are played, but also from targeted workshops that leave behind a lasting imprint in host cities across the region.

“We don’t just pitch up, play games and say goodbye,” Destombes says. “We always leave a legacy in whichever country we are in.

“We have done incredible work to develop male and female referees across the region, many of who have gone on to make the FIFA panel. We have put aspiring male and female coaches through courses to get their D-License, which is really the first step in a coaching career.”

Women’s football has been increasing in focus, with South Africa making the FIFA Women’s World Cup in France in 2019. Their coach, Desiree Ellis, has spoken multiple times of how COSAFA helped her mould her squad, and her own skills, by providing quality competition at tournaments.

Nelson Mandela Bay Mayor Mongameli Bobani, Sue Destombes (Cosafa General Secretary) and Nelson Mandela Bay Mayor Deputy Mayor Thsonono Buyeye during the 2018 Cosafa Women’s Championship Zambia team arrival at Port Elizabeth International Airport on 9 September 2018 © Ryan Wilkisky/BackpagePix

“It has long been COSAFA’s wish to grow women’s football and we have made great strides in recent times. Last year was the first in which we held three women’s competitions in the various age-groups, and we will do that again in 2020,” Destombes confirms.

“It is about providing opportunity to girls to both play the game, or be involved in another capacity such as coaching and administration.”

The senior COSAFA Women’s Championship that was held in South Africa’s Port Elizabeth last year drew bumper crowds, suggesting there is plenty of interest in the female game from fans.

But finding commercial partners is more challenging, admits Destombes.

“One of the new tournaments we want to implement is a women’s club Champions League, for teams across the region. That would truly catapult the development of the game. But it is dependent on finding commercial partners.”

That is true for much of the work done by COSAFA. While they do get funding from FIFA for tournaments, it is a finite amount and does not come close to covering the expense.

“Our number one challenge is the financial aspect,” Destombes says. “We are the biggest of the six CAF zones that make up the continent, with the most members, and we would like to include everybody.

“For example, our women’s Under-17 and Under-20 competitions had eight teams competing last year, and we would love to expand that to at least 12 to provide greater opportunity.

“But that is a huge leap in the budget, so we need commercial partners and bullish broadcasters who want this type of content.

Nick Said

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