In 2008, Tihana Nemcic was a finalist in Croatia’s Miss Sport beauty competition. Four years on, she is breaking new ground as the first female coach of a Croatian men’s soccer league side.
The bubbly 24-year-old blonde took over the reins at fifth-tier regional side Viktorija Vojakovac last month, scoring a notable first in the traditionally male-dominated world of Croatian soccer.
Now instead of the glamour of the catwalk, she makes a nearly 120km round-trip from the capital Zagreb twice a week to Vojakovac for training sessions and Sunday league matches.
On the training pitch, Nemcic wears a blue tracksuit and her hair in a ponytail as she runs among the players.
“Set your pace! Don’t stop! Pass the ball precisely!” she shouts, taking command.
However, despite oozing self-confidence, she admits that she did have a “certain stage fright” when she took over at the amateur club, who are mid-table in the league.
“I’m aware that I’m a blonde,” she explained with a wry smile, mindful of her undoubted good looks, but insistent that femininity and soccer are not mutually exclusive concepts.
“So far my experiences with both players and spectators have been very positive,” she said.
The fact that Nemcic has been so readily accepted undoubtedly comes down to her pedigree in soccer and, as she says, is a logical progression.
She plays for women’s side Dinamo Maksimir Zagreb and coaches Croatia’s women’s under-17 squad as well as a soccer school for girls. She used to play for the national women’s team, but is currently recovering from a knee injury.
At Viktorija Vojakovac, the University of Zagreb physical education graduate is responsible for the main men’s team as well as the veterans and the juniors — about 40 players in all.
“For me it was a challenge, but also a logical development since I’ve been in football practically my whole life,” Nemcic said.
“I don’t see why I would be less capable than a man for the post, since I’m skilled and educated for it,” she added.
“[Real Madrid manager Jose] Mourinho, [former Barcelona coach Pep] Guardiola, [Manchester United boss Alex] Ferguson all have their own way of working,” she said. “The essential thing for a good coach is that he is capable of transmitting knowledge.”
At pitch-side, spectators watching a late training session last week were complimentary.
“Tihana is an expert, she is capable and educated. The fact that she is blonde cannot harm, but can only help,” Nermin Orucevic said.
The players agreed, although the appointment did catch some off-guard.
“When we heard that we will get a woman coach we were surprised,” defender Kristian Klasan said.
“But she earned her authority. We listen to her and we agreed between ourselves that it will be like that,” the 33-year-old driver added.
Nemcic — who says she is just as comfortable in a tracksuit as the high heels she wears off the pitch — is also well-respected by the club’s junior players.
“It’s so cool to have a woman coach. She is not too strict, but she knows what she wants,” 12-year-old Valentino Gudic said.
“She is very experienced, has the authority and boys listen to her,” the club’s director Vitomir Mijic added.
It was boys — or rather, a particular boy — that got Nemcic into soccer in the first place.
“I was training in athletics and when I was 13 I fell in love with the boy who was the best footballer in town,” said Nemcic, who was born in nearby Krizevci, about 60km northeast of Zagreb. “I followed him to the pitch, watched his techniques. The next summer the love was gone, but my love for football was born and it lasts until today.”
Whatever the reasons, Nemcic’s arrival has buoyed the team’s hopes — and prompted a number of enquiries from players at other teams eyeing a possible transfer, goalkeeper Tihomir Jagusic said.
“Tihana can help our club a lot. We hope to see first results within a few months,” he added.