How a Malaysian female football coach thrives in a male-dominated sport


Coach Keshika’s dream is to train football players who can represent the country at international events. Photos: Keshika Subbarao

As youth football club FC Kuala Lumpur’s only female coach with 25 male players under her wing, Keshika Subbarao, 27, has every reason to be proud of what she does.

Like her peers, Keshika ticks all the right boxes as a coach, and is respected for her positive attitude, competitiveness and focus.

But despite her years of coaching experience and a string of certifications under her belt, she is still discriminated against as a female coach in the male-dominated field of football.

“Even though I rarely receive discrimination from the players, I have been on the receiving end of it from some of the players’ parents. They aren’t used to seeing, or have never experienced having, a female coach. In the past, there were complaints as some parents did not want a woman to coach their child,” revealed Keshika in an email interview.Keshika encourages girls passionate about football to pick up the sport and soak in as many fun experiences as possible.Keshika encourages girls passionate about football to pick up the sport and soak in as many fun experiences as possible.

She’s also encountered many negative remarks from her peers, who believe women should not be involved in football in any capacity.

“I’ve also experienced difficulty working with peers who are condescending. Some have tried to bully me to get me out of my job. These additional challenges make it even harder for women to get into and stay in this profession,” Keshika lamented.

Despite these setbacks, Keshika remains unperturbed as she’s passionate about the sport. Her dream is to train football players who can represent the country at international events.

“I really enjoy sharing my love and passion for the sport with players and helping them to reach their goals.It’s not everyday that one gets to meet English former football manager Hodgson (right).It’s not everyday that one gets to meet English former football manager Hodgson (right).

“Football was the first sport I was exposed to as my father was a semi-professional footballer. As I grew older, I really liked the competitiveness of the game and the significant impact of the sport,” shared Keshika, who is the elder of two siblings.

A class act

The Ipoh-born, Kuala Lumpur-based Keshika loved football so much that she started a blog on the game when she was 14.

Then, while pursuing her A-Levels in England, and later her law degree at Anglia Ruskin Uni-versity in East Anglia, she worked as a part-time football writer at sports media platforms like Britain’s Football Talk, Oxford United Foot-ball Club, Peterhead Football Club and Italy’s Forza Italia Football.

“But I knew that I wanted to be more involved in the game and to be hands-on, so I started shadowing coaches and managers to learn more about coaching and eventually started doing it. I’m grateful that they took a chance on me and gave me this massive learning opportunity.”Keshika with Trinidad and Tobago's former professional footballer Dwight Yorke.Keshika with Trinidad and Tobago's former professional footballer Dwight Yorke.

During her tenure as a sports writer, she has rubbed shoulders with English former football manager Roy Hodgson, Italian football manager Gianfranco Zola, and Trinidad and Tobago’s former professional footballer Dwight Yorke.

Keshika returned to Malaysia in 2015 with a law degree in hand, but opted to pursue her interest in football.

Despite her bittersweet journey, Keshika gets a kick out of it. To her, football isn’t just a game but also a channel to do good. She’s volunteered as a youth football coach for the Asian Football Confeder-ation’s Protect The Goal campaign to raise awareness of HIV.

She has gone the extra mile to design and organise youth football programmes for underprivileged children in orphanages around Klang Valley.

Last year, she was recognised as the Women’s Aid Organisation’s sports ambassador.Keshika has been passionate about football since she was a young girl.Keshika has been passionate about football since she was a young girl.

Keshika believes it is essential to continuously create opportunities for women and girls to engage in sports and empower them on an individual level by promoting self-confidence, leadership, teamwork skills and a sense of achievement.

“We also need to challenge existing gender norms and roles within society. Sports provides a space in which women and girls can renegotiate concepts of femininity and masculinity, challenge stereotypes that label women as weak and inferior, and demonstrate to their communities what they are capable of achieving.

“Promoting girls’ and women’s involvement in sports is an important tool in gender equality and women empowerment and, more broadly, in development and social change. I hope that we will have more policies and more women decision makers who will be able to enact these much-needed changes,” said Keshika, who has also served as a football pundit for a local radio station.

As one of the few female football coaches in Malaysia, Keshika wants to prove that women have what it takes to excel in any field based on talent, grit and determination.

She encourages girls who are passionate about football to pick up the sport and soak in as many fun experiences as possible.

“My advice is to just go for it and enjoy the process of learning and being part of the sport. Don’t let negative opinions influence your joy as you experience this wonderful sport,” she concluded.

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