“I'm happy,” said USA women's national team coach Pia Sundhage after being nominated for the FIFA Women's Coach of the Year 2011 award. “I'm happy that people care about the women’s game. I see this as something positive for the team I'm coaching and the fact that we played in the World Cup Final.” The Swedish football legend may have been left empty-handed after losing the FIFA Women's World Cup 2011™ Final on penalties to Japan, but these days that is water under the bridge for the 52-year-old tactician.
Looking back on the events of the past year, one moment stands out in particular for Sundhage: “Abby Wambach’s goal in the quarter-final against Brazil. I can still see Megan Rapinoe on the left side. She looks up and crosses the ball into the box and I'm thinking: Where's Abby? There she is in the box, where she should be. The ball is flying and it takes forever.
“Then I see Abby, rising higher than anybody else to head the ball into the net. It was absolutely fantastic,” she enthused. “That goal changed my life. From then on we didn't play well. I was almost sad after the game, but we advanced to the Final and played our best. I was very happy about that.”
With Germany 2011 consigned to the history books, Sundhage is now looking forward to her next challenge, the Women's Olympic Football Tournament at London 2012. The USA have already hinted they will be among the favourites with some impressive performances in qualifying. The Stars and Stripes scored 38 without reply at the preliminary tournament in Vancouver, topping Group B and steaming past Mexico and hosts Canada in the semis and final respectively.
“It was nice to not concede any goals,” said Sundhage. “We allowed the opposition a couple of good chances, but we have a very good goalkeeper and a great captain in Christie Rampone. We’ve been working on our defending quite a bit and we'll continue to do that. I’m very happy and impressed with our defence. To play in a tournament and not concede a single goal is huge.”
When Sundhage took charge of the USA in late 2007, she had just eight months to qualify and prepare for the Olympics in Beijing the following summer. But as we now know, her hard work was ultimately rewarded with the gold.
"For me, football is so much more than just a medal," the likeable Swede told FIFA.com and, in many ways, it is this modesty, experience and passion for women's football which make Sundhage so successful as an international coach. In others, it is her ability to strike a balance between youth and experience in her squads.
"International experience is an advantage the younger players don't have, but at the same time, the younger players might find different solutions,” she explained. “You develop a style over the years, but the younger players remind you that there might be a different way of solving the problem, that there might different ways to respond. I really like the mix. We've done a good job. The young players blend in with the older players and the veterans. It's a pleasure to be around them and so far we've been successful.”
Sundhage offered some extra advice to any young players hoping to make the grade: “I think it's very important to be curious. If you sit down and think: ‘This is fine, I'm satisfied’, you need to consider the next step. For me, it’s all about being curious about the things you can learn and experience.”
Target 2012: Olympic gold
This year Sundhage will lead her side to the Olympics for a second time, having already been involved at two FIFA Women's World Cups as coach and assistant coach. "They are both big tournaments," said the 52-year-old.
"The biggest difference is that there are more games at the World Cup. I can go and watch different games and teams. At the Olympics there are just 12 teams, so there are more possibilities at the World Cup. I can tell that the Americans see it differently. To win an Olympic gold medal you have to work really hard and overcome several obstacles. The Olympics are something special."
The USA may have failed to defend their Algarve Cup title in the final of this year's edition, after once again losing out to Germany 2011 conquerors Japan, but that has changed nothing with regard to Sundhage's target for 2012: "To play the best football at the finals and win the Olympic gold medal."