Rock legend Tina Turner’s anthem Simply the Best is a song you might easily expect to hear on the soundtrack to Pia Sundhage’s life. After all, the 54-year-old Swede is undoubtedly among the elite in her profession, celebrating considerable success as a player and being nominated for the FIFA World Coach of the Year in Women’s Football award four times in succession.
“I’m very proud of it, but I’ve always been around good teams," Sundhage told FIFA.com modestly. "The US and Swedish teams made me look good."
During her spell at the USA women's reins, Sundhage led them into a bright new era, winning every title except the FIFA Women’s World Cup™, a trophy that still eludes her. The aspiring guitarist has now been in charge of her native Sweden since the end of 2012.
“Last summer was magic,” Sundhage remembered fondly. “I'd been dreaming about doing something special, with the team hosting the European Championship, but it was so much better than I even thought it would be. The support we received and the steps we took for women’s football – I think it was just a fantastic summer.”
Summing up her first few months on the touchline for the Tre Kronor, Sundhage continued: “Even though we didn’t win, I consider it [the UEFA Women’s EURO] to have been a big success. There were some exciting games and some really good football as well.”
Usually you look at the US team and they’re fast and strong. But this time we looked like the quick team.
The likeable Sundhage was generally satisfied with her team’s performance at the European Championship, even if they were not ultimately rewarded with a trophy. “Of course we wanted to reach the final and we didn’t manage to do that,” she said. “But I also think that we are still winners in a sense because we did our very best.
We could feel the support from the crowds and we played attacking football. I'm satisfied with parts of our games and in other parts we were perhaps a little bit unlucky. All the same, we should acknowledge that the Germans are the best in Europe.”
2014 marks the year in which European sides will book their places at the FIFA Women’s World Cup Canada 2015, and for Sweden the year began with the Algarve Cup, where Sundhage came up against USA. The Swedes emerged as narrow 1-0 victors against a team who top the FIFA/Coca-Cola Women’s World Ranking but were without goal machine Abby Wambach.
“We have different players like Lotta Schelin,” the former striker said. “She is very different but also a goalscorer. She scored a lot of goals at the European Championship. Our captains Caroline Seger and Lotta Schelin brought the best performances out of their team-mates.
“We had so many pacy players in Sweden at the same time. I have never seen that before. Usually you look at the US team and they’re fast and strong. But this time we looked like the quick team, sometimes almost too quick. We wanted to be more patient on the attack – we weren’t too successful with that."
Scots and Swedes
Sundhage summarised her team's playing style as “counter-attacking with a lot of heart”. Such qualities will be invaluable for Sweden’s upcoming matches in their Canada 2015 qualifying group, where an enticing two-way battle for a single World Cup place is emerging between Sundhage’s side and Scotland. The Damlandslaget currently lie second in Group 4 behind the Scots, who also have a Swedish coach.
“One thing I have learned over all these years in football is not to take anything for granted," said Sundhage. "You have to respect the game and your opponents. There are two Swedish coaches working with the Scotland team, both of them very good. I know they will give us great competition.
Scotland have improved their game tremendously over the last few years and it will be a tough fight. But we will do everything to make sure that we win, because we really want to qualify for the World Cup. Hopefully we are going to play some great football.”
To play great football, you have to possess exactly the kind of passion for life and the game that this exceptional coach shows. As the interview drew to a close, conversation returned to the issue of Sundhage’s personal soundtrack: “My soundtrack would be a mix of all kinds of songs, but the most important thing is that I really want to enjoy life, and my life is football.”