Having chosen to pursue a career in football at a time when it was far from fashionable, Pia Sundhage overcame the odds to enjoy remarkable success as an international player and coach. Now at the helm of the USA women’s national team, she is aiming to rain on host Germany’s parade at the FIFA Women’s World Cup™ this summer.
A European champion in 1984, Pia played at two FIFA World Cups, helping Sweden to a third-place finish in 1991. She was also assistant coach to Marika Domanski Lyfors, who was in charge of China PR at the last edition in 2007. One year later she took over as head coach of the USA women’s team, where she quickly made her mark, winning the Algarve Cup and the Women’s Olympic Football Tournament in Beijing.
Although the Stars and Stripes needed a play-off against Italy to claim the last berth for Germany 2011, the 50-year-old is upbeat about her team’s chances at the finals. In an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, Pia talks in detail about this showpiece event, and also reminisces on her early playing days and her move into coaching.
FIFA.com: Can you tell us how you first got involved with football?
Pia Sundhage: I was five or six years old and I got into the game through my neighbours. Girls didn’t play football in those days, so I was seen as different, even a little odd. But my parents knew better and told me from the start to do whatever I wanted, so I played football everywhere. I played my first proper game at the age of 11 and there was a 25-year-old in our team. I thought, 'Boy, is she old' (laughs).
As you say, it was still unusual at that time for women to play football. How did you get the idea that it could be the sport for you?
At weekends they always used to show the English First Division on television and I liked it. For me it was all about the pleasure I got from scoring. Handball was popular in those days, but then a lot of girls suddenly changed to football. We were all proud to do the same thing as the guys.
What memories do you have of the first FIFA Women’s World Cup in 1991?
It was a fantastic event. Emotionally it was indescribable. In 1984 we had the first European championship, and I was pushing hard for a World Cup at the time. Then at the age of 31 it became reality. We had the chance to do the same as the men. I still feel proud when I think back to the hordes of fans and great stadiums. It was an excellent experience despite our failing to win it.
Four years later the FIFA Women's World Cup was held in Sweden, your home country. What are your memories of that?
I remember Mia Hamm who, believe it or not, came over from the US to promote the tournament. In the first game when we played Brazil, the fan and media presence was overwhelming. That tournament was great for developing women’s football across the board.
Can you explain why women’s football was so strong in Sweden at that time?
I think it was mainly because of the good players we had. When I was a child I had to change my name from Pia to Pelle because, as a girl, I was not allowed to play football. Fortunately, those problems are now history. We exercised our right to play football, which led to our success.
After a long playing career you became a coach. How did that come about?
It was not a conscious decision, it just happened. I’ve always loved the game because I’m fascinated by what happens on the pitch. Even when I was still playing I trained the women’s age-group teams, and at 27 I obtained the highest coaching licence. I’ve made many friends and enjoyed good times thanks to football, and it was time to give something back. It’s the best job you can have.
Is coaching the USA Women’s National team also the best job you can have?
Yes, definitely. There’s absolutely no doubt about it. When I was younger I wanted to take charge of a men’s team, but now I’m very happy where I am. The game is developing at a pace and you have to keep learning, which is what makes it so interesting for me.
You were the last team to qualify for Germany 2011 after coming through a play-off. What are your thoughts on that?
For me the glass is half full, so I see our qualification in a positive light. We took everything for granted and were almost too late to correct our mistakes. But we took our second chance. Today it’s not enough to just rely on being good. You need to work hard on tactics because there are many good teams. We showed what we could do in the play-offs and we deserve our place at the World Cup.
Who do you see as favourite for the title and how far do you think your team can go?
So far a lot of people have been talking about Germany, but now it’s time to talk about the USA. We’re focusing on our [opening] game against Korea DPR; we‘re not thinking about the final yet. I want to enjoy this tournament. For now, we’re going to work on putting a few things right. The fans can look forward to a marvellous event, because having this World Cup in Germany is the best thing that could have happened to women’s football.
Have you seen any up-and-coming stars we should watch for?
There were some fantastic prospects at the U-20 World Cup, but I don’t see any new stars emerging before the finals. I have every faith that the established players will take centre stage there, although a young player will no doubt also appear and make a name for herself.
Is this down to the ongoing development of women’s football in recent decades?
Most certainly. The biggest development has been in technique. There are no longer huge gaps between teams in terms of performance, which wasn’t the case before. The game has become more even. All the players are extremely fit, which is not to say they were unfit before. The next step will be tactics. Reading the game and making decisions when play is in full flight will be the next challenge.
Finally, are women or men better coaches for a women’s team?
The quality of a coach has nothing to do with his or her gender. However, as a woman, it’s extremely difficult to find a coaching job. I was lucky to be able to work in China, Norway and now the US. However, not all my colleagues have had the same opportunities. One thing I would say is that only a woman who has overcome all the obstacles in her path knows what it means to play at this high level. It’s not for me to say whether that makes us better coaches.