When it comes to women’s football, there are few who know the game better than Pia Sundhage. As coach of USA between 2007 and 2012, the 146-time former Sweden international helped the Stars and Stripes to two Olympic triumphs, as well as second place at the FIFA Women’s World Cup Germany 2011™.
However, despite her success Sundhage opted for a new challenge considerably closer to home: as coach of the Swedish women’s national team, a post she has held since December 2012. “We were very successful and the standard of football is so much better now if you compare 2008 and 2012,” she said in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com.
“I can see what we [USA] had been working on and I was excited for the next four years. However, I wanted to go home. The fact that Sweden is hosting the European Championships made it a little bit easier for me. I want to represent my country and try to do something good in Sweden.”
The 53-year-old is enthusiastic about her new role and is determined to lead her countrywomen back to the top of the women’s game. The Scandinavians were European champions in 1984 and have since followed that up with second-place at the FIFA Women’s World Cup USA 2003 and two third-placed finishes (1991 and 2011) on the world stage.
Sundhage is counting on her experiences with USA to help replicate her achievements at home. “The Americans are fantastic when it comes to playing under pressure and they have high expectations, ever since they won the first World Cup,” Sundhage said.
“They embrace that and bring out the best in each other, they never give up. You could call that an American attitude. If you believe in something, it could be something good. You have to do it together. It’s contagious. That’s something I want to bring to Sweden.”
People truly believe that we could do something good. If you think about it and if you are hoping for it, there is a big chance that it will happen.
Her work already appears to be bearing fruit. Sweden finished fourth at the recent Algarve Cup, where they managed to hold Sundhage’s former charges to a draw in the group stage. The penalty shoot-out defeat against Norway in the match for third place was their only defeat in the entire tournament.
“It’s very different working with the US and working with Sweden. We don’t have Abby Wambach to start with,” Sundhage said, laughing. “But I think we can create stars in Sweden. In the States they have Abby, Alex Morgan, Christie Rampone and Hope Solo. All four players stand out. As a team and as a coach I need to try to make that happen because it’s hard to win if you don’t have stars.”
Sundhage’s next challenge is already on the horizon, with the UEFA Women’s EURO 2013 kicking off on 10 July on home soil. As hosts, Sweden have not been able to test themselves competitively in qualification, a fact which makes preparations all the more difficult.
“We have training camps every month and between the camps I will travel and communicate with the players,” said Sundhage. “We have to make priorities, coaching is about having priorities and good timing. The players don’t only have one coach, they have a club coach as well, who also has to have their own priorities.
"Some of the players have weaknesses, but that’s fine," she added. "If they work on their strengths as much as they can, then I think we have a chance to play some great football.” That much was evident in Sweden’s 6-1 mauling of Iceland at the Algarve Cup, the tournament’s biggest scoreline and a welcome confidence booster ahead of the continental meeting this summer.
As hosts, the expectations on Sundhage and her team are high. Yet the 2012 FIFA World Coach of the Year for Women’s Football is unmoved by the pressure and is banking on home advantage to spur her side to success.
“I'm hoping for the players that there will be big crowds; that will help us quite a bit,” Sundhage said. “With a new coach and a new event there are some high expectations, but I think that’s positive. People truly believe that we could do something good. If you think about it and if you are hoping for it, there is a big chance that it will happen.”