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Marie-Louise Eta: The Trailblazing Champion Quietly Leading Union Berlin to the Champions League

The Athletic – Iron In The Blood: Union Berlin and their inaugural Champions League journey

This season, The Athletic is following Union Berlin, a Bundesliga club from the former East Germany who were playing regional-level football less than 20 years ago, on their inaugural Champions League journey for our series Iron In The Blood.


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As Union Berlin’s players drifted down the tunnel and the stands in Braga’s Municipal Stadium emptied to the tune of one last song over the PA system, Marie-Louise Eta stood alone by the side of the pitch for a moment, lost in her thoughts.

Union had just
picked up a second successive point in the Champions League on the road — that was the good news.

The bad news was that Union had carelessly squandered a lead against a team that had played with 10 men for more than an hour, leaving the Bundesliga club’s hopes of finishing third in Group C and qualifying for the knockout stage of the Europa League, hanging by a thread.

On top of that, Union’s winless run had been extended to 16 matches in all competitions and the team’s mental fragility was painfully exposed after Braga equalised. For a period, it felt like Braga had the extra player.

Eta had plenty to ponder in that respect.

But there was another storyline for Eta to try to take in: the 32-year-old had just created history by becoming the first woman to be part of a coaching team in a men’s Champions League match.

Promoted to the role of interim assistant coach just over a fortnight ago after Union and their long-serving manager Urs Fischer agreed to part ways, Eta has become a trailblazer for the small but increasing number of women working in the men’s game.

Her presence in the dugout alongside Nenad Bjelica, Union’s new coach, felt like a personal triumph for a woman who has been obsessed with football ever since she was a small child, and a landmark moment for the sport.

“It’s not a conscious decision (to appoint) a woman. That almost discredits this decision,” said Dirk Zingler, Union’s president. “She is a fully qualified soccer coach and that’s exactly how I see her, whether it’s a woman or a man.”

Promoting Eta to work with Union’s first-team squad was straightforward in the eyes of Zingler. Marco Grote, the club’s under-19 coach, had been asked to take charge of the first team on a temporary basis following Fischer’s exit after five years at the helm, and Eta was Grote’s assistant.

Logic dictated that Eta, who has held a UEFA Pro Licence since April and had coached youth teams at Werder Bremen and within the German Football Federation since retiring from playing at the age of 26, would step up with Grote. Eta was a history-maker for Union Berlin on Wednesday (Octavio Passos/Getty Images)

Except it soon became clear that not everyone outside of Union saw it that way.

It felt telling that when Kicker magazine ran the story about Eta’s new role on their Facebook page, they turned off comments.

Old-school opinions (that’s a polite way of putting it at times) still make a lot of noise in football, particularly on social media, where some people felt that it should be the best man for the role of interim assistant coach at Union, rather than the best person.


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