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New Antigua & Barbuda head coach Lisa Cole wants to build a change engine

Lisa Cole knows she’s facing a challenge, but she has the right mix of realism and idealism for it

Papua New Guinea v Brazil: Group A - FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup Papua New Guinea 2016 Photo by Ian Walton - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images

This is part one of an interview with Antigua and Barbuda WNT head coach Lisa Cole.

Lisa Cole has seen and done it all. She’s worked with youth players and pros, club and international. She’s been around the world helping women’s programs develop, recently in Papua New Guinea with their U-20 team, and now in Antigua with their women’s senior team. Antigua and Barbuda comprise an island system in the Caribbean with a total population just over 100,000 and an official FIFA ranking of #154, third from the bottom of ranked Concacaf nations. There’s no grassroots youth programs or local women’s league, and they don’t have enough players to form a proper 11-v-11 league with 10 teams as per FIFA funding requirements, so they’re looking at 7 or 5-a-side. How’s that for a challenge?

Cole said in a phone interview that she became aware of the Antigua job after seeing University of Washington head coach Lesle Gallimore and University of New Mexico head coach Heather Dyche at the World Cup in France. Gallimore and Dyche said they knew of a job that was perfect for her skillset - experience with youth players and senior national teams and the ability to see down the pipeline to help build a whole program, as well working for a small federation.

Cole is preparing Antigua for Olympic qualification, trying to secure one of the two remaining Caribbean berths at the final qualification tournament, although she’s facing the usual problems you get when trying to pull together a senior team with with not a ton of time or money. “Our U-20s are off in college,” she said, “And now is not a great time to get them from school, so our best players potentially won’t be in our group, and that’s part of their challenge is that if they do have good players on the island, they end up going and pursuing other things. And then having funding and money to get the best team back for training and for competitions is really tough.”

Cole is also preparing her team mentally, trying to define what success looks like for them in particular at qualifying. Obviously, the ultimate goal of Olympic qualification is going to the Olympics, but when you have a low percentage of actually making the cut, you have to set other goalposts in order to measure progress. For Cole and Antigua that’s getting steady minutes and building themselves in their Concacaf sub-region. “It’s about going in and getting four international matches,” she said. “I haven’t even see the senior team play an international match yet. We haven’t even had the same players on the field for our scrimmages in the last two weeks because of work commitments and other things going on.” If Antigua can finish their games in a better place than where they started, that’s one marker of progress.

Cole is also looking at Jamaica, the first Caribbean country to make the Women’s World Cup. If Antigua can build up to competitive footing with Jamaica, combined with the expanded World Cup field, who knows what might happen four or eight years down the line. That’s part of the equation that Cole is trying to balance, though. Eight years is a long time for a federation to invest its women’s program, and there’s no guarantee they’ll stick with the team. Right now, it’s hard enough to get the team together training regularly - particularly since many of them also have other jobs - and not having to rebuild every time there’s an event.

“One of the sad things for me about Papua New Guineau,” said Cole, “Is that there’s been no legacy with that team. There’s been no consistency of training, there’s no been league put together. So all the things we talked about pre-U-20 World Cup and what the legacy would be for that event being there hasn’t necessarily happened for them. That’s the problem - I think we do these massively great things and the U-20 World Cup made a huge impact in how people see women’s football in that country, even see women in that country. And then we had a nice event and everybody left and it’s back to status quo.”

What might help Antigue is more confederation level events with Concacaf, or even regional tournaments within the Caribbean that gets all the teams playing each other regularly and showing federations that investment can lead to results. “I think if you’re not preparing for anything there’s less incentive to get your players together and spend the money,” said Cole. “I think it’s really tough on federations to just have intrinsic motivation to do the right thing. I think sometimes they need extrinsic motivation and I think for us, we need those events.”

One of the meta questions here is whether this is all worth it. The Antiguas of the world may never be able to compete realistically with bigger, richer nations who have more youth players than the entire population of the island. But that requires us to ask what the point of all this soccer is anyway. Does FIFA exist just for champions? Or is it supposed to help build soccer worldwide for everyone? Is the goal of FIFA to make money no matter what, or to invest in the game at every level? For Cole, she’ll never say never to an internationally competitive Antigua WNT.

“The great thing about football is you can have everything and still lose a game,” she said “You can be the better team and still lose the game. There’s always that, you have to play the game to know who’s going to win for sure. You look at Fiji sevens, going and winning an Olympic gold.” You can be realistic and idealistic at the same time, know your limits but not limit yourself.

“The goal should be the same for every country, but what it actually looks like in execution needs to be specific to the environment that you’re in,” Cole said.

There are intangibles, too. Cole noted that there were boys in Papua New Guinea cheering for the U-20 girls too. Sports are cultural, and the tournament and the team influenced the culture of the country - what Cole called a “change engine.”

So for now, Cole is dedicated to building another engine in Antigua, where they not only have to do all the usual work that goes into assembling a team, but they also have to add a hearts-and-minds component. She might one day think about trying to return to NWSL, where she was both a head and an assistant coach, but that has its own challenges as well. For now, Cole is building something and hoping it will last beyond the upcoming Olympic cycle. She’s brought in former Houston Dash goalkeeper Haley Carter, who also has experience with team development challenges from her work with the Afghanistan WNT. They’re thinking of the first hurdle, but hoping that clearing it will pave the way to giving Antigua a chance at more hurdles in the future. Realism and idealism, limits but not being limited. You have to play the game to know who’s going to win for sure.

Stay tuned for part 2 of our interview with Lisa Cole discussing the current state of high level coaching opportunities for women.