Wednesday 14 October 2020, 07:00

Spanish women thriving in the men's game

  • The number of women working in men’s football remains low

  • Erica Hernandez in China and Nuria Sanchez in Spain are among their number

  • The pair talk about their experience and the barriers still to overcome

Every time a Qingdao Huanghai player gets injured, Erica Hernandez races on to the pitch to help him. The Spaniard, along with her husband Jordi Escura, heads up medical services at the club and is the only female member of staff working in the Chinese Super League.

Meanwhile, at Valencia CF, Nuria Sanchez is another exception. The woman known as ‘Mulan’ is the only female injury-specialist physio in Spanish men's football and works full-time taking care of the club’s most promising young talent following a successful football career of her own.

The two are united in their passion for sport and health, and a desire to continue learning. In conversation with, they share their respective experiences and thoughts on the integration of women in men's professional football and what can be done to make it more common.

Erica Hernández, treats Romain Alessandrini, of Quingdao Huanghai FC

Erica Hernandez: from culture shock to learning new therapies

  • Qualifications: Degree in exercise and sports science and licensed physiotherapist; experience as a university lecturer

  • Position: Head of medical services at Qingdao Huanghai since 2016

  • Trivia: this is Qingdao's first season in the Chinese top flight.

After a stint working in Thai football, Erica and her husband Jordi moved to China in 2016 to head up medical services at their current club. They've been working as a team (or a ‘pack’ as Erica jokingly refers to it) for several years now: "The things that he does best are the ones hardest for me and vice versa, so in the end we each do what we do best and complement each other perfectly."

Erica says that China PR never loses its capacity to surprise: "They have very different ways of thinking. One of the things that blew my mind at first was their idea that spending more hours working on a player wasn't good, as they believed the body had to do the work itself!"

The key, she says, is to be patient and allow time for things to fall into place. That and keep an open mind. "They have therapies that work and are neither better nor worse than ours," she said. "I'm always open to learning new things. If you have to use suction cups, do acupuncture or apply herbs, then you do it."

The clash of cultures has been at every level, from the language to that generated by superstitions. "Our coach was told it wasn’t normal for a woman to travel with the team or sit on the bench during games because it brought bad luck," Erica explained. "So I asked, 'How can you say it brings bad luck if there’s never been a woman there?'"

Anecdotes aside, Erica is thrilled with the experience, and so are her players: "My relationship with them is ideal. If you're professional, have good training and know how to handle things in a dressing room, then you have no problems."

So what barriers need to come down for us to see more Ericas in men's football? "The barriers are a mixture of convenience – the fact that something has always been done a certain way – and ignorance," she said. "I’m convinced that, because they’ve had a positive experience with me, the clubs I’ve worked with will give other women opportunities as well."

Nuria Sánchez, member of Valencia's youth team staff

'Mulan': Apply your own experience to your players

  • Qualifications: Degree in exercise and sports science, three master's degrees and a doctorate in physical education from a gender perspective. She also holds the title of coach.

  • Position: injury-specialist physio for Valencia CF youth team.

  • Trivia: a former professional player who had spells with Valencia, Real Sociedad, Leeds United and Villarreal.

Convinced she could not make a living from playing football, ‘Mulan’ made sure to pursue her studies during her playing days: " On a typical day, I’d get up, go to college in the morning, grab lunch, drive to my coaching course (which finished at 19:00), then train from 20:00 to 22:00."

Understandably, she laughs when some of her players complain about having to attend classes in the afternoon: "I say to them, ‘Lads, I didn’t have time to see my friends or have a relationship, let alone to go partying’."

Nuria Sánchez, member of Valencia's youth team staff

The sacrifices were all worth it for the 30-year-old, however. After spending time in the Villarreal youth academy, she now enjoys helping her young charges at the Mestalla to recover from injury. Some of the players have almost become like family to her. "With long-term injuries, such as knee ones, which can last six to eight months, they end up spending more time with me than their girlfriends," she said, laughing.

After the initial surprise of seeing a woman on their staff, she says she now has the complete confidence of her players: "If they see that you work well, that you take it seriously, that what you tell them works and has them flying again on the pitch... then you know you have them."

Moreover, her experience as a player means she knows precisely what is going through their heads. "I've had countless injuries, so you treat players the way you’d like to be treated."

Nuria would like to see more women in positions like hers and believes the responsibility to make that happen is a twin one: "The first thing is for clubs, like Valencia did with me, to make their professional appointments independent of the candidate’s gender. And secondly, when you get your chance, you give absolutely everything."