Esti Puji Lestari, United City FC chairwoman, was once told by men to ‘fear women in sports’

Even if you have never heard of Esti Puji Lestari, before she was appointed the new chairwoman of United City FC – the most decorated football club in the Philippines – the Indonesian entrepreneur’s audacious investment in rescuing the club had many people in the sports business petrified and spellbound, all at the same time.

American singer and songwriter Nina Simone was a clear influence, and Esti has also been compared to Rebecca Welton from the comedy-drama series ‘Ted Lasso’.

United City FC, formerly known as Ceres-Negros, was forced to withdraw from the Philippines Football League last year over financial and legal issues caused by the default of payments by its Singapore investor, Riau Capital Live.

Esti arrived in Manila earlier this year, got the club back running, and quickly helped finalise the partnership with Blocksport, a pioneering Swiss-based company that led to the launch of the first-ever football fan-centric mobile application in the country.

When we met online, days before Esti was announced chairwoman, I expected the mounting pressure of football to get to her. But her experience has taught her to stay cool.

In 2016, Esti was managing Indonesia’s Liga 2 club – Persijap Jepara. She built the necessary foundation that led to the club’s promotion two seasons later.

In 2019, she was appointed the chief executive officer of a second-division club in China – Qingdao Red Lions. There, she constructed the commercial foundation of the club, reducing dependency on its existing investors.

Esti isn’t averse to football. She thrives under pressure.

Is it terrifying?

“Oh, it’s definitely that,” said Esti, slumped on a sofa in her office in Jakarta.

“But I like being terrified. I like the adrenaline rush it gives. Very much like riding a rollercoaster.”

Is there pressure?

“Not really. When I heard how deep in the gutters the club was, there was no other way, but up,” she added.

Esti had hoped to get a nod, possibly two, but people in her corporate circle were telling her to stay away. But the way she looked at it, the club had already done her a favour. The legacy the club left behind, before the harrowing crisis, could not be ignored.

“I’m an eccentric optimist. You need to be, to survive in this game,” Esti said.

Despite the excess of optimism, once in a while, Esti would train her guns at the sports industry executives and supporters who took advantage of her when she first started venturing into football.

“When you’re young, your mind is supple, your opinions not always your own,” she said.

“As a juvenile in this industry, I was told (by men) to fear the women in sports business and administration, like we were competition. There was this notion that there was only one seat at the table (for women) and I had to fight to make it mine.

“That was such an unsettling narrative for me. Many women in sports are overtly cautious and insecure with each other. We shouldn’t be.”

Then she met her fellow business partner and husband Tudor, “and he tore a knife right through all the rubbish I had been fed”.

Tudor is a former professional footballer in Europe with an extensive business portfolio in football.

“When I told him that I was done and weary of the industry, he asked me why was I defining all that had happened to me in football over one, or a few little unfortunate experiences. Instead, I should be learning to protect myself more, and not completely and abruptly disregard my legacy.”

“He added that no one could ever deny my involvement and contribution to football. It has changed the game and is disruptive in a positive way.

“He also said that if I abandoned it all now, what would I say to the young girls and my own daughters about the battle I fought… that I gave up?

“My stomach was churning and I became totally restless,” she said.

Esti has seen things change in recent years but believes that’s down to the women, not the industry.

“It is a fantastic time to be a female entrepreneur in football,” she said.

“The support among women is growing. Instead of being insecure about each other, we’re in awe of each other. What Victoire Cogevina Reynal has done at Mercury 13 (mercury13.com) is so inspiring.

“I’m just happy to be here. A few years ago my adventures in football had gone down the gutter and I never wanted to return. I’m glad my husband and daughters begged me not to give up on football, knowing that I had more fight in me,” she added.

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