International Women’s Day 2021
By Gabrielle Nina Mitch
Players from one of the biggest football clubs in Africa, Tout Puissant Mazembe, are practicing on the field ahead of their next game. On the sidelines in Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of Congo, is their coach Maguy Safi – the first female coach of their women’s team.
On the small dusty field, Maguy Safi gives instructions to her players as the curious look on. Her journey to this coveted coaching position wasn’t an easy one, she says.
Despite knocking on soccer club doors with her bachelor’s degree in her pocket, she repeatedly encountered misogyny and discrimination as she applied for coaching positions.
“It was a bit difficult for me– people wouldn’t accept me,” she says. “It hurt me when I applied to coach a team, and was always told that they needed a man, but I had a degree in physical education.”
Maguy faced sexist remarks, even from her own neighbourhood; people would tell her to stop playing soccer and conform to societal norms as a woman.
“People told me that women who practice sports are lesbians, whores,” she tells RFI’s “Africa Calling” podcast.
She says it was her emotional support from her parents and her education that helped her deal with these situations.
“The sport we practice is a profession like all other professions such as medicine and I chose sport,” says Safi, adding that she is proud to become a sportswoman.
Safi had difficult time on the road to success, but the perception of women in sport in the DRC is changing. In the past, parents would rarely let their daughters play soccer because it was considered a man’s sport.
In order to get women on the field for the of DCMP Bikira women’s football team where Safi was a member, part of the challenge was convincing parents to let their daughters play, says Arthur Kikuni, secretary of the team.
“In the past, there was a serious problem with women’s soccer, when you see a girl playing soccer, it was really strange, parents had a hard time letting go of their daughters to play soccer,” says Kikuni.
“But with time they understood that it’s a sport like any other sport, like volleyball or handball. But with gender equality being promoted in the DRC, I think the parents got the message,” he adds.
She made her mark while at DCMP Bikira, not only on the field, but on the sidelines. The current coach of DCMP Bikira women’s football team, Guelord Kandanga, is one of her mentees. She brought him on as an assistant coach in 2014, and says her dedication to the game inspires him.
“I became a coach today thanks to Ms Safi –she is unique as a lady coach in our region of Haut Katanga, and what she does is wonderful,” says Kandanga.
“She’s making the pride of the province and I believe that by 2025 she will be at the head of the national team,” he adds.
From Track to Soccer
Although football is her profession now, Safi didn’t start with a soccer ball, but began her sports career in track and field, encouraged by her parents.
The three-time champion in the 100m race, who competed at the world level in South Korea in 2011, eventually set her sights on the soccer pitch.
Her dad was initially against her playing football, although she played the game at school. After her father passed away, she decided to join DCMP Bikira, a women’s football team.
Relying on the advice and guidance of her parents, who insisted she work towards a profession, she combined sport and studies until she got her degree in physical education and sports management.
“My parents pushed me to study, telling me that if I wanted to play sports then I had to finish my studies,” she says, which she believes enabled her to make good choices. They told me… ‘I want you to be a professional wherever you want to go,'” says Safi. “I always tell myself that my parents helped me a lot,” she adds.
Although the women’s tournaments are less developed in DRC than in other countries, Eric Bangapila, sports doctor of the Mazembe women’s team, believes that women players have a future in the DRC.
“Our wish is to see women’s soccer emerge. Like in other countries, we see there are championships that are played in women’s soccer, why not here in the DRC?” says Bangapila.
TP Mazembe created its women’s club to meet the requirements of International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) and Confederation of African Football (CAF), and more young women are being encouraged to play. The women’s talent in DRC is evident, says Bangapila.
“See how the girls who give all their best playing soccer like that, our wish is to help and encourage them even more so that they emerge and move forward,” he says.
However, professional soccer leagues are few and far between, and women coaches are struggling to gain acceptance to coach women’s soccer teams.
Safi is a sign of hope for women who dream big – she wants to break stereotypes and bring the new women’s team of Mazembe as far as possible.
This team is a first step, Safi dreams of coaching the national team too, all part of an effort to break female stereotypes in sports. – RFI