Recent years have seen countless breakthrough achievements by women in football, on and off the field. That is also true in coaching, even though opportunities for females in senior men’s football have been limited to date.
Margaret Aka a highly experienced former national team player is making waves in the coach’s dugout. Margaret Aka spent 14 years representing Papua New Guinea, but now she is helping guide senior male players at the top level after being appointed coach of PNG national league side Southern Strikers.
Aka’s recent appointment, indirectly at least, continues the legacy from the 2016 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup, hosted by Papua New Guinea. That tournament catapulted female sport into the nation’s consciousness, and opened up opportunities for females on and off the field.
Aka, though, has certainly earned her coaching stripes. She is the first woman in PNG to earn an OFC B Licence, and has international experience coaching at the 2014 Youth Olympic Games, as well as at U-17 level.
After winning the men’s second division in the Port Moresby Soccer Association competition last season, Aka received the call to lead the Strikers in their debut national league campaign.
“I was never nervous taking the role for the first time,” Aka said. “I have always had a passion for football, and I just got straight in and starting directing them. It was a challenge, but I tried to be positive.”
Winning the competition is unlikely, with the two stand-out clubs – Lae City Dwellers and Madang FC – both loaded with senior international players.
The Strikers, in contrast, are filled with players in their late teens. The Port Moresby-based outfit are the first local club to have an academy programme, with the ultimate aim of feeding players up the development pyramid into the top-flight.
“It is the first ever club to have such a development programme,” Aka said. “The reason I said yes to it is because of that academy programme.
“I probably wouldn’t have said yes to a team full of senior players, but I wanted to help them [young players]. It is going really well at the moment and I’m enjoying it.”
The 42-year-old says she hasn’t experienced any prejudice. “People may have their own opinions, about a female coach in an NSL environment, but for me I just try and be positive all the time.
“What the players do on the pitch reflects me as a person and as a coach. It’s not about me, it’s about what the players can do with their game and individually as people.”
It is just 15 months since PNG hosted the U-20 Women’s World Cup and Aka believes the legacy of the tournament remains been significant. A rise in playing numbers and new stadia are the most obvious benefits, but less tangible is a change in mentality in a nation that Aka says is traditionally male-dominated.
“There was nothing that could beat that experience,” Aka said, her tone lifting with excitement when the topic turns to PNG 2016. “That was something that you cannot compare to any other event in this country.
“It has had a positive effect on girls in this country. You see a lot of young girls playing football in the park and having activity in their lives.
“There have been a lot of campaigns regarding gender equality. The tournament helped create a reality where people could say ‘yes, girls can play football’.
“I remember one of the girls’ programmes in Bougainville for the tournament; we had boys come out to cheer on the girls and that is something you would have rarely seen. I witnessed with my own eyes that when girls take up an activity like that, it brings a respect.”