Hege Riise was one of the greatest players of her generation
She is now a top coach and a nominee in The Best FIFA Football Awards
Riise tells us why she’s on the lookout for a fresh challenge
As a player, Hege Riise really was The Best. Before Mia Hamm ascended to her throne with USA’s 99ers, it was Riise – player of the tournament at the FIFA Women’s World Cup Sweden 1995™ and 1993 UEFA Women’s EURO – who held the crown.
A midfielder of class and guile, she was the shining star of a Norway team that became world champions in 1995 and Olympic gold medallists five years later. In a famously physical side, Riise brought skill, subtlety and a level of vision that set her apart. She described herself as seeing the game “almost as if it’s taking place in slow motion”, explaining: “Before the ball even comes to me, I can see how the move’s going to unfold.”
Players of such extraordinary natural talent don’t, however, tend to make outstanding coaches. Indeed, it has been suggested that the ease with which football is mastered by such players often removes the need for them to analyse or understand the game deeply. Even worse from a coaching perspective, their brilliance can act as a barrier to empathising with – and educating – players of lesser ability.
But every rule has its exceptions and, just as Johan Cruyff and others translated genius from the pitch to the dugout in men’s football, so Riise is doing the same in the women’s game. The 51-year-old has been nominated for the FIFA Best Women’s Coach Award following a run of six successive top-flight titles with LSK Kvinner, a team that has also punched above its weight in the UEFA Women’s Champions League. Yet Riise freely admits that she did not foresee such success and recognition in her hesitant early days in the profession.
“When I stopped playing, I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to go into coaching,” she told FIFA.com. “Then when I did get an offer that tempted me, I found my first year as a head coach absolutely exhausting – much more so than I could have imagined. It was only in the second year I started to enjoy it, and every year I’ve grown more and more into it. Now I’m at the stage where I want to aim for the top. Or at least to be the best I can be.
“As a coach, my style is to listen more than I speak. I look to involve my players in decisions, to give them trust and also, I hope, some calmness to do their jobs. When I look back to the coaches who got the best out of me, I think I’m quite similar in my approach. I like close connections with my players, and to be open to chat – not only about coaching and football, but about everything.
“I feel like it’s my responsibility to bring something to each player I work with, and to develop them in some way. For me that’s what being a coach is. I’ve never had a problem relating to a player who doesn’t have the attributes I had as a player. Bringing out the best in players, whatever their skills are, is a challenge I really enjoy.”
Big tournaments beckon
It is also a challenge that, in the short term at least, Riise is stepping away from. She announced over the weekend that she will be shifting to another role within the LSK management structure, allowing her assistant to take up the reins as head coach. But she is open to a return to the front line elsewhere and, having excelled abroad and dazzled at major tournaments as a player, is keen to sample that elite environment from the other side of the touchline.
“I feel that I now have a high level of experience as a head coach and, although I’m happy at LSK, I would love the challenge of moving to one of the more developed leagues,” she said.
“As for coaching a national team at a World Cup or a EURO, that’s always been an ambition of mine. Those big tournaments are actually the only thing I miss about playing. I don’t miss the training in between one bit! But yeah, the atmosphere and the buzz of those big tournaments is always so special and, having enjoyed it so much as a player, I’d love to go back as a coach.”
An American education
Riise does have experience in the international arena, having led Norway’s U-23 side and served as assistant to the then USA coach Pia Sundhage. The Norwegian is fondly remembered by those world-conquering American players, with Carli Lloyd having spoken of the unassuming icon “always having the right things to say”.
Lloyd and her team-mates also made an immediate and lasting impression on Riise, who returned to her homeland with a vivid vision of where women’s football was heading.
“I can still remember my first training session with the US, being really shocked by the pace and power and intensity,” she recalled. “I’d played at the top level but I'd never seen that kind of pace on a training ground before, and for me that’s been the big change in the women’s game in recent years – the game has got much faster.
"Having seen the way the US players train, and the levels they set, I wanted to bring that back to Norway. Sometimes that meant training and playing against boys, but I wanted to do anything I could to prepare my players for the demands they would face against the best.”
The price of progress
Another aspect of women’s football’s evolution is that the Nordic nations, which once boasted some of the most powerful clubs in Europe, have left behind the fast-growing leagues of England, France and elsewhere. Riise, though, is not nostalgic for that lost age of Scandinavian-German supremacy.
“It’s true that other nations have gone past us, but I’m not sad about that because it’s great for women’s football and brings so many more exciting opportunities for female players,” she explained. “It also gives us a challenge here in Scandinavia to step up a bit and be competitive.
“I only see it as a positive because I gained so much from playing in Japan and USA, and I want young players to enjoy the same incredible experiences I had. The fact that there are so many more options now to go abroad to play, and so many good clubs with big ambitions, is exactly what we need. It’s made women’s football a very exciting environment to work in.”