Emma Hayes: ‘This isn’t just about a kiss. This is about systemic misogyny’ | Chelsea Women

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“This is a profound moment, I hope, not just for Spain but as a reminder to other federations of the importance of their women’s teams,” Emma Hayes says as, during an absorbing interview, she considers the poisonous aftermath of a brilliant World Cup. The Chelsea manager, who has done more than anyone to raise the standards of English women’s football, cares about the game across the world. She praises the courage of the Spanish players who stood up to their federation, while lamenting the loss felt by those women whose principles meant that they withdrew from the World Cup. But Hayes’ concern extends far beyond Spain.

“We’re talking about the need for real system change,” she says. “I’m still wondering, did everyone get paid across the World Cup? Did Jamaica get paid? Did those Colombian girls get paid? Colombia made the quarter-final and had to take something like three flights back home. Would this happen to a men’s team? But I always believe progress is evolutionary, and this is just another step in the women’s game which is coming down from the north of Europe, from England and France, now Spain, and hopefully the same happens across the world.”

The hurt caused by the unwanted kiss Luis Rubiales forced on Jenni Hermoso, after Spain beat England in the final, is still felt acutely by players whose celebrations have been tarnished. This week Hermoso filed a criminal complaint of sexual abuse against Rubiales, the unrepentant president of the Spanish football federation, but, as Hayes points out, this is also a case of entrenched misogyny: “For the Spanish this isn’t just about a kiss. This is about systemic misogyny towards their players over many years. It’s not an isolated incident. This goes back to the federation not supporting them the way they deserve.”

Hayes, who is as impressive in person as Pep Guardiola, Jürgen Klopp, Arsène Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson were when I interviewed them, also talks in compelling detail about the way empathy and emotional intelligence have become as important as tactical acumen and decision-making in football management. She has written a fascinating audio book, Kill the Unicorn, in which she debunks the myth of the managerial genius. Hayes explains how our obsession with great coaches obscures the fact that the best football clubs are run by teams of experts welded together by a driven figure – whether it be Guardiola or Hayes. But, first, it’s timely to listen to Hayes on Spanish football and how their players refused to buckle to prejudice.

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“You see the way they’ve been appreciated back home and so I hope that they can move in a new direction and get equality of opportunity in a way that England, USA and Germany do. They deserve that and I think, as world champions, their players handled everything thrown at them in the most dignified way. But those players that did not go to the World Cup [in protest against their federation] have been robbed of a winner’s medal. But in the long term they will do more for the Spanish game and, for that, they deserve huge credit.”

Her views on discrimination are trenchant but Hayes also carries a love of football which is obvious when she discusses Spain. “This Spanish group is a golden generation. Some of these players have been playing together [at Barcelona] since the age of eight. [Mariona] Caldentey, Hermoso, [Aitana] Bonmatí and [Irene] Paredes know exactly where they’re going to be on the pitch. Then they sprinkle into that winning team players that have come from [Barca’s] under-17s, under-20s and the Real Madrid girls.

“The fact that they could win without one of the world’s best 6s in Patri [Guijarro] and a left-sided centre-back, Mapi León, who is the best progressive passer of the ball in world football [tells you that] everybody should be worried about Spain. They can be at the top of the game for a long time. So there’s no shame for England in the silver. The best team won, and not just on the night. Spain deserve to be where they are and England have to respond – but there’s a lot to be proud of.”

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Eight of Hayes’s Chelsea squad featured in the World Cup semi-finals, while Millie Bright, Jess Carter and Lauren James played in the final. She has just taken her squad to Portugal for a pre-season camp and, when we meet at Chelsea’s base in Cobham, Hayes says of her World Cup contingent: “I always give them a couple of weeks to get it out of their system and usually they’re hungry to come back.”

Emma Hayes celebrates with the WSL trophy in May
Emma Hayes celebrates with the WSL trophy in May: ‘I have to speak differently, and work on different management techniques, every year.’ Photograph: Tom Phillips/SPP/Shutterstock

Last season was the most difficult of Hayes’ career, despite her guiding Chelsea to the league and FA Cup double, as she had to endure an emergency hysterectomy caused by years of chronic endometriosis. But, after 11 years at Chelsea, she has built such a seamless infrastructure that the club could cope with her convalescence as her assistants maintained the intent and quality before the returning Hayes steered them towards more glory.

“Lauren James kills me for saying this all the time, but I genuinely view my glass as half full,” Hayes says before smiling at the thought of her star player who endured a tempestuous World Cup. “She hates the analogy, because I always use it with her and she wants me to come up with something younger for her to reflect on. Every now and then she teases me over it.”

Did she talk a lot to James after the young Chelsea forward, having played so well in the group stages, was sent off in the last 16 for stamping needlessly on Nigeria’s Michelle Alozie. “Yep. It was just in the moment [that James committed such a pointless act] and so I reminded her that what you do here all season is important. She said: ‘I knew you’d say that.’”

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As Hayes reveals, she often tests James psychologically in training by allowing fouls and decisions to go against her. It might not have helped James in the World Cup, as she missed two games, but Hayes remains fully supportive. “A former Lioness asked me about Lauren and I said: ‘How many times have you played in the World Cup or Euros and someone on your team did the same thing but didn’t have VAR?’ VAR picked that up. She’s fallen prey to the increased scrutiny. It happens to be her first World Cup but she’s only been red-carded once in her career. Was I surprised by it? A little, but she can get a bit frustrated like any player who’s player-marked. But it’s the exception rather than the norm with Lauren.”

Emma Hayes and Lauren James during a Chelsea match against Tottenham in February 2023
Emma Hayes says Lauren James will bounce back from any World Cup negativity: ‘It would be the last thing I’d worry about with her.’ Photograph: Julian Finney/Getty Images

Will James overcome any lingering negativity once the new season begins? “Oh yeah. It would be the last thing I’d worry about with her. She’s tough in her head. That stuff [controversy], she understands. She comes from a family of footballers.”

Hayes is also convinced that James won’t be affected by her burgeoning fame which has seen her face plastered across billboards and television screens all summer. “She’s so football hungry and knows herself. I don’t worry about those things with Lauren. I have high expectations for her but she’s so gifted that sometimes we forget she’s still so young. There’s still a lot to learn.”

Hayes suggests in her book that male sport is “still plagued by Neanderthal attitudes. I believe that in football we are at a tipping point of generational change. More leaders are showing their humanity because they must meet modern managerial expectations. It’s a simple case of emotional evolution. If you are not a people person, an empathetic manager, you will eventually be spat out of the system. A younger workforce is naturally curious, instinctively questioning, and sees through the Unicorn fantasy that one exalted individual has the sole power to change their fortunes. Lasting success is built on teamwork.”

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She adds that “emotional intelligence, the ability to manage your own emotions and understand the emotions of people around you, is one of the superpowers a great manager needs”.

Hayes talks regularly to Ferguson but his hairdryer treatment would no longer be tolerated in a modern dressing room. Has Hayes also modified the way she talks to players? “I’ve never been a shouter and screamer because my dad did it to me. I hated it. However, you learn to communicate differently as players today are very much a non-confrontational generation. They’d rather you texted or WhatsApped them. They say they want the truth but they don’t really want the interaction.

“I always say to the players: ‘I can’t be equal but I will be as fair as I can.’ Fairness underpins most things I do. When I get it wrong I always reflect and speak with the player about it. But I have to speak differently, and work on different management techniques, every year.”

Emma Hayes at the Chelsea training ground in Cobham, Surrey
Emma Hayes says she wants football to reach ‘a place where girls can feel it’s not just a game for boys. It’s their game too.’ Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

The tipping point she describes is fuelled by the fact that “this is a generation that’s only had social media. They don’t know life without it and so much of their emotional ability is governed by social media. There’s a bigger fragility as the sheer volume of interactions they’re exposed to almost rewires their brains differently. Their emotional centres are a bit more volatile. Nothing in coaching now can be done without understanding all of that in its context. I have to pay attention to everything because there are triggers that easily set players off.”

Hayes stresses that “I look at my profession in a very serious way. It takes many years to master its many elements. I think about myself 20 years ago compared to where I am now as a coach. Gosh, I had so many questions about figuring it out back then. Whereas now it’s all about putting everything into sync around something already well defined. I just need to remember that I can’t be everything to all of them.”

The 46-year-old shrugs. “I absolutely am not popular with all of them but my job is just to keep driving the standards – and you don’t have to be a bad human to do that. I can empathise and also teach. But I give them responsibilities. They’re adults.”

Even before she set out on her coaching career, Hayes’s dad promised her she would “change the face of women’s football”. Her remarkable work with Chelsea, and the way in which she has forced even blinkered male sceptics to take women’s football seriously, has fulfilled her father’s goal. “I had a very modern dad. He said: ‘You’re going to upset a few people along the way, but you’re going to drag the sport up.’ I wanted to pull the sport up to a place where I can sit in the crowd and enjoy it – with big stadiums full up, women getting paid properly, broadcasting deals driving an industry around it, prize money that trickles down to the rest of the pyramid and grows the grassroots game. I want a place where girls can feel it’s not just a game for boys. It’s their game too.”

There is still a long way to go to achieve lasting equality, whether in Spain or England, but does Hayes allow herself to feel proud of her own achievements? She pauses, gazing out the window at the pristine training pitches, before nodding. “Do you know what? This morning, after I’d played Godzilla with my son, I was on my way to work. I looked back and saw all the medals hanging on the lights and I just smiled at them. I thought how everything you achieve keeps you grounded and content. I definitely do not leave my house feeling I need to do more. I don’t need anything. But I want to do more.”

Kill the Unicorn by Emma Hayes is an audio book by Audible and available here.

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