With every year that passes, fewer and fewer people can boast that they watched Pele play in the flesh. In other words, a large proportion of football lovers across the globe have only seen O Rei's exploits through videos. Linda Sembrant falls into this category, having been born in 1987, a decade after the Brazilian genius hung up his boots. On the other hand, she can lay claim to having witnessed two giants of the women's game working their magic at close quarters.
The Swedish defender is lucky enough to be coached at international level by her compatriot Pia Sundhage, who began writing her legend with a ball at her feet and has continued to do so on the touchline. Sembrant also had the privilege of sharing a dressing room with Brazilian maestro Marta over two seasons at Tyreso. The duo have made a lasting impact on her, which explains why she will be keenly following their fortunes at the upcoming The Best FIFA Football Awards™ ceremony, with both in contention for honours.
Sundhage is in the running to be named the outstanding women's football coach of the year for the second time, having captured the crown back in 2012. This earlier accolade came in recognition of her work in inspiring USA to their third straight Olympic gold medal (she was also at the helm for the second of those triumphs). After taking charge of her native Sweden in late 2012, she fell just short of completing a remarkable personal hat-trick four years later, making a mockery of the supposed gulf between the Blågult and the Stars and Stripes in terms of their respective resources and talent pools by guiding her homeland to the brink of glory at Rio 2016.
Experience and humility
"I think that the challenge, the difficulty of the task, was one of the things that appealed to her after having coached a big gun like USA," Sembrant told FIFA.com, reflecting on her side's run to the gold medal match in Brazil, where they were beaten by Germany. "Pia is a person with a can-do attitude. If she thinks that there's a chance of making something happen, achieving an objective, then she doesn't think twice about taking on the challenge and she's able to convince everyone around her that it's possible. She felt that doing big things with Sweden was feasible and she proved as much by leading us to the Olympic final. That was a big achievement for Sweden, for us [players] and for her alike."
Having plied her trade in football for some 40 years, 56-year-old Sundhage has pretty much seen it all and done it all, and yet she is as motivated as ever. Just as importantly, her ability to spur others on remains undimmed. "She is really very passionate about football. She lives and breathes it, and she's a great motivator," said the Montpellier stopper. "When she's standing in front of you talking, she conveys something special," Sembrant went on, before launching into a lengthy description of her national-team coach's strengths. "She's very thorough and detail-oriented. She has the experience of having played for a long time, so she can understand what's going on with players in all manner of situations."
"She's very humble too!" Sembrant hastened to add, almost without pausing to catch her breath, as if anxious not to leave anything out. "Not only as a person, but in regard to her leadership too. She knows what she's very good at, but she also knows what aspects she needs to call on other people to handle because they're better at them. She gives us a lot of responsibility, which forces us to step up. She's very demanding with us and you can really tell that she believes in what she does and believes in her players."
Sembrant and her team-mates repaid that faith last summer by scooping Olympic silver, the country's best-ever result in the women's competition. Along the way, they knocked out the hosts – led by a certain Marta – in the semi-finals. While the pair cut contrasting figures at the conclusion of the penalty shoot-out that decided that encounter, one of them leaving the pitch with her arms held triumphantly aloft and the other doing so in tears, they had previously been on the same emotional wavelength during their two seasons together at Swedish outfit Tyreso, from 2012 to 2014. Even though that period ended in disappointment, with defeat by Wolfsburg in the UEFA Women's Champions League final, the defender has nothing but good memories of her time alongside the Brazilian, whom she marvelled at on a daily basis.
Admiration and awe
"She does extraordinary things with the ball and when you watch her, all you can do is admire her, enjoy it and smile," said Sembrant, who was powerless to prevent Marta scoring twice in the 5-1 thrashing that the Seleção dished out to the Swedes in the group stage in Rio. "What most impresses me about her is that she's always capable of making use of all her qualities when required. From her speed to her technique and her reading of the game, she always finds a way to produce her best at the right time. When you're on her side, you just watch and say to yourself, 'Oh, yes, that was the right thing to do.'"
A joy to behold as a team-mate, but what about as an opponent? "Marta is a very difficult player to play against. You've got to do everything you can to keep her from picking up pace; you can't let her dictate the tempo," the Scandinavian said, "But I've got to admit that I really like defending against players of her ilk: it's an exciting challenge."
"We've played against each other on many occasions. It's always a challenge to try to stop her from making the difference and using her qualities. In any event, it's great to have had the opportunity to be on both sides, to have played both with and against her," the defender added.
Being so intimately acquainted with Marta's game leaves Sembrant well placed to comment on her former club colleague's position in the pantheon of all-time greats. "To my mind, she's the best ever," said the Swede about her Brazilian friend, who is up for the inaugural The Best FIFA Women's Player Award. "Everyone knows all about her qualities as a player, but above and beyond that, she's an amazing person. She's kind and humble; she's got a big heart. It's the fact that she's as great a person as she is a player that makes her so special," concluded Sembrant, who seemed certain that Marta and Sundhage will both be taking home prizes this coming Monday, 9 January.
Her only doubt concerned the order in which she should congratulate the two. "Who will be going up on stage first, the coaches or the players?" she asked us. "The [winning] coach? OK then, I'll call Pia first!"