It is not often that a coach who has just suffered a heart-breaking defeat in a FIFA World Cup Final™ can manage smiles and jokes. But that was Pia Sundhage’s demeanour when she faced the media immediately following the USA's defeat on penalties against Japan at last year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup in Germany.
And perhaps it is that positive outlook that has played a fundamental role in helping the USA to a highly successful five-year period under Sundhage, with the affable Swede taking the reins in the aftermath of a disappointing 2007 FIFA Women’s World Cup campaign.
Now Sundhage can look forward to the next stage of her career - one that was equally impressive on the field as it has been as a coach - by guiding her native Sweden when they host next year’s UEFA Women’s EURO. As a player, Sundhage was one of the game’s best, finishing sixth in the voting for FIFA Women’s Player of the Century. A legendary figure in her homeland, Sundhage played for her country at the 1991 and 1995 FIFA Women’s World Cups and 1996 Olympic Games.
Sundhage’s coaching record with the USA is as impressive as her playing statistics. USA’s 6-2 win over Australia on Wednesday saw Sundhage conclude her tenure with 91 wins from 107 outings. The Stars and Stripes also collected gold medals at both the 2008 Beijing and 2012 London Olympic Games, and would have had an unprecedented trifecta but for that defeat at the final hurdle in Frankfurt last year.
Sundhage’s penultimate match in charge gave an insight into both her warm personality, and the esteem in which she is held by the team. USA captain Christie Rampone and the players presented their head coach with a Taylor guitar signed by the entire squad before Sundhage used her new instrument to serenade the crowd with a rendition of the classic Elvis Presley hit "Jailhouse Rock."
“This is a great team and we do good things,” said an emotional Sundhage. “The fact that they gave me a guitar with their autographs, that was just huge. I’m very happy and it’s very emotional. “[The players] have made me a better coach. I’ve been around this team for five years and it feels phenomenal, it’s like a dream.”
The USA’s extraordinary record over the past five years alone is evidence that the chemistry between Sundhage and the players played a role in the team’s success. The team’s stars' strident praise of their outgoing leader illustrating the synergy between players and coach.
“She made me a tremendous player by her knowledge of the game,” said Rampone. “[We] have open communication in meeting sessions and [Pia] sees everyone’s viewpoint of the game and not just her viewpoint. It has made me look at the game in a different way and I love it even more.”
Veteran midfielder Shannon Boxx was equally effusive in her praise of Sundhage.
“The passion she gave us rubbed off on us,” Boxx said. “You could tell in practice that we were cheering more for each other and we were more motivated to win. She brought that flair, she brought that offensive side. She picked players like Tobin [Heath] and [Megan] Rapinoe and worked on the offensive side. I think she made our team a better, well-rounded team.”
Sundhage is upbeat about USA’s future and believes the world number one has even more scope for development, saying the team can hit new heights at their next major tournament, the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada.
"In 2015 I think the US could be unstoppable," said Sundhage. "We have young players like Tobin Heath who have come in and showed great composure and skill. We always said the US had a great attitude and competed really well, but if you add technique it is very exciting when you look ahead to 2015."
Regardless of what the future holds, the USA odyssey will continue to have a special place in Sundhage’s heart.
“It’s unreal. I come from a small town in Sweden where I wasn’t supposed to play soccer because girls didn’t play soccer,” said Sundhage after her final match this week. “Now, here I am standing in front of a great crowd and hearing my named shouted. It’s a dream. I’m living a dream.”