At his sixth FIFA Women's World Cup, Sermanni is a fountain of knowledge for Canada
MELBOURNE, Australia — They say it's a small world. And Tom Sermanni has coached in most of it.
The Scottish-born, Australian-based coach is working his sixth FIFA Women's World Cup — and his second as a member of the Canadian coaching staff. Sermanni, who also had a 16-month stint in charge of the U.S. women in 2013-14, served as Australia's head coach at the soccer showcase in 1995, 2007 and 2011 and led New Zealand at the 2019 tournament.
With Canada, he served as an assistant to John Herdman at the 2015 World Cup and is a member of Bev Priestman's staff at the current competition in Australia and New Zealand.
But labelling Sermanni an assistant coach really doesn't do him justice. The affable 69-year-old is a valuable resource — a walking encyclopedia of soccer.
"One of the greatest characters of football," said former Australia captain Julie Murray.
The seventh-ranked Canadian women trained in Melbourne on Monday morning before taking a four-hour flight west to Perth where they take on No. 22 Ireland in Group B play Wednesday. Olympic champion Canada is coming off a scoreless draw with No. 40 Nigeria while the Irish, in their World Cup debut, lost 1-0 to No. 10 Australia.
Sermanni's ties in the sport are remarkable.
As an example, Sermanni gave current Australian captain Sam Kerr her senior debut at 15 in February 2009 in a game against Italy in Canberra. Fast forward 14 years and Kerr is the face of football in Australia. The Chelsea star has 63 goals in 120 games for Australia and is at her fourth World Cup, albeit currently nursing a calf injury.
Wearing Italian colours that same game Kerr debuted for Australia was attacking midfielder/striker Pamela Conti. Now 41, Conti is coach of the Venezuelan women's team, ranked 51st in the world.
Conti is also part of the FIFA Coach Mentorship Program, which sees experienced coaches from the women's game mentor up-and-coming coaches from around the world.
Conti's mentor? Tom Sermanni.
Other mentors in the FIFA program include Priestman, former Canada and Norway coach Even Pellerud, Brazil and former U.S. coach Pia Sundhage and current U.S. coach Vlatko Andonovski.
Sermanni says the learning goes both ways.
"Very much so. And they keep you on their toes with that. And they also keep you thinking about how you might do things or how you might deal with a problem … The other great thing is there's no solution in coaching, there's no one way to do it."
Born in Glasgow, Sermanni played in England and Scotland for Albion Rovers, Blackpool, Torquay United and Dunfermline Athletic. In his early days as a semi-pro player, he doubled as a primary school teacher with a specialization in physical education.
He was brought to Australia in 1983 by Marconi, the football arm of a sporting club founded by Italian immigrants.
"I only intended to come for a year and here I am 40 years on, still here," said Sermanni, who lives with Alison, his wife of 36 years, in the Sydney suburb of Brighton-le-Sands.
The coach who brought him to Marconi joined Canberra City the following year and Sermanni followed him there. He taught high school in Canberra and eventually became a player-manager with Canberra Croatia.
He eventually spent 16 years in Canberra where he worked at the Australian Institute of Sport. It was there that a friend approached him in 1994 to see if he had any interest in taking on the Australian women's head coaching job.
After his coaching role with the Matildas ended in 1997, he spent time in Japan as an assistant coach at Sanfrecce Hiroshima FC before moving to the U.S. in 2001 for an assistant coaching role with the San Jose CyberRays and then the top job with the New York Power, another team in the now-defunct Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA).
After a stint as director of soccer development in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, he had a second go-round as Australia coach from 2005 to 2012. In 2010, he led the Matildas to the AFC Women’s Asian Cup, Australia's first major continental title since joining the Asian Football Confederation in 2006.
He took charge of the U.S. women in January 2013, eventually moving on to join the Canadian staff at Herdman's behest before becoming the first coach of the Orlando Pride in 2015.
Sermanni spent three seasons in the NWSL before taking over the New Zealand women's team on a nine-month contract that stretched into three years, eventually leaving the Football Ferns after the Tokyo Olympics.
While Sermanni's career has taken him around the world, his Scottish accent remains the same. As does his penchant for crosswords.
Along the way, he has seen the Women's World Cup grow from 12 to 32 teams.
"Incredible," said Sermanni, recalling his '95 Australia team had just one assistant coach who doubled as the goalkeeping coach.
"The game's just moved on. And really in such a short space of time as well," he added. "It's just amazing how it's kicked on."
Sermanni sees "unprecedented development" in the women's game around the globe over the last five years, citing teams' preparation and finances.
"Although there are still some significant gaps, the quality of teams has gotten closer. The quality of the games has improved significantly and the development of what you would call the third- or fourth-tier teams has come on quite significantly," he said.
Sermanni's many connections often means facing friends and former teams.
His New Zealand side lost 2-0 to Canada at the 2019 World Cup in France and he will face the Matildas in Canada's final group game July 31 back in Melbourne.
"Over time it's just become part of the business … you just kind of get used to going in and trying to do the job the best you can," he said.
His connection to Canada came from Herdman, who coached in New Zealand before coming to Canada. Herdman called Sermanni once he had left the U.S. job.
"Which I'm eternally grateful for," said Sermanni, who was inducted into the Football Australia Hall of Fame in 2014.
He says he has no idea what his coaching future holds.
"I was quite happily easing into retirement when I got the call (from Canada for this World Cup) and I got the mentorship thing," he said. "And I help out with a W-League team here in Australia, the Western Sydney Wanderers (where he is head of women's football)."
"I don't have any ambitions," he added. "I've had my time as head coach. I've had my time of chasing the game and trying to get on as far as I can in the game. I'm just really happy that I'm still involved in some capacity."
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 24, 2023.