Nelfi Ibanez has directed youth clubs and a Bolivian club with whom she won an amateur title
“Let’s go, show some strength! Don’t stop, keep up the pressure!” A woman’s voice rings out across a Lima football field, urging the male players to work and train ever harder.
Nelfi Ibanez is a rare female coach in Peru’s macho world of semi-professional teams.
The second division championship will get underway shortly and the “Hijos of Acosvinchos” are on a roll, after two wins and a tie in friendlies.
Their record is attracting attention along with a surprising weapon in Latin America: a female coach.
Ibanez, a 43-year-old Bolivian, is not new to the sport. The long-haired coach trained at home and in Spain and has directed youth clubs and a Bolivian club with whom she won an amateur title.
She said the progression to a semi-professional club aiming for Peru’s Premier Division was a logical step, even if she sometimes feels a bit lonely.
“I’d like to have more female colleagues,” Ibanez told AFP. “Don’t you think I must be the only one in the world? In the countries I’ve visited I seemed to be the only one coaching men. (Even) the female teams in countries like Germany, the United States or Japan are led by men.”
For the directors of Hijos, a club founded 66 years ago in the Peruvian capital by immigrants from the Andean province of Ayacucho, Ibanez was an obvious choice.
“There were 20 potential Peruvian coaches but looking at this woman’s CV — with studies in Bolivia, Paraguay, at FIFA, and working with FC Barcelona — we didn’t think twice before contacting her agent,” said club president Jaime Gonzalez.
Ibanez’s approach is to go for the attack with a 4-3-3 or 4-4-2 system of play, always keen to put pressure on all sides of the pitch and the opposing goal.
“To stay entrenched at the back removes all the beauty from football. I don’t believe in anti-football,” she said.
Ibanez is a pioneer in a country and region where women still struggle for recognition and a voice.
But she does not see herself as a crusader. She has simply loved soccer since childhood.
“I don’t know if I’ve been brave. It happened naturally to me,” she said.
Her dream is to train the Bolivian national team one day and help them qualify for their first World Cup since 1994.
She brushes off the frequent sarcastic comments and insults she hears inside the stadium.
“They can say anything they want. It’s their right. Personally I’ve always been very respectful, like the players.”
The players train under the watchful eye of the “profesora” without showing signs of discrimination.
“This woman knows soccer really well,” said Yetro Garcia, a 21-year-old striker. “She’s very aggressive and she likes the goal. She knows exactly what she wants and how to lead us.”
“I don’t see any difference (with a male trainer),” said 20-year-old Diego Moron. “I don’t have any problem with it. I actually think it’s great.”
Ibanez said she had long overcome any embarrassment when the men were changing in the locker room.
“That’s their problem. I focus on my technical pep talk ahead of the match,” she said.
Deputy coach Cesar Vidal, 56, raved about her record so far.
“We speak the same language: to be on the attack and seek a beautiful game,” Vidal said. “We’re going to be the championship’s sensation.”
In some ways, they already are.