Schelin: Without Pia we wouldn’t have reached the final

You're simply the best, better than all the rest. Better than anyone, anyone I ever met.

The lines from a well-known Tina Turner hit were sung by Pia Sundhage after she was crowned FIFA Women’s World Coach of the Year in 2012, and the lyrics could hardly have been more appropriate. Four years later the Swede is once again among the planet’s best three coaches, alongside Silvia Neid and Jill Ellis, and can dare to dream of becoming The Best FIFA Women’s Coach 2016. While it remains to be seen whether Sundhage will get another chance to show off her vocal skills in Zurich on 9 January 2017, she is always happy to serenade her charges in Sweden’s national team, as Lotta Schelin revealed in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com.

"She has sung a lot of times,” she explained with a smile. “It’s not like every day; she picks her moments and sometimes it’s spontaneous. We’re a team that like to sing, relax and dance,” Schelin continued. “She sings a lot of Bob Dylan songs, especially The Times They Are A Changin’. She likes that song because it has great lyrics. Times are changing, and she uses that song to motivate us."

Sundhage took charge of her homeland’s national side in December 2012 after overseeing USA for 107 matches and steering them to two Olympic gold medals in 2008 and 2012. But what kind of coach is the 56-year-old? "She wants us to take responsibility both on and off the pitch,” explained the Rosengard striker, who made her Damlandslaget debut in March 2004. “She likes it when we take initiative and try to lead the team. She is really focused when she is on the touchline and when she talks football, but off the pitch she is really relaxed. She lets anyone be whoever they want to be. She lets us relax and laugh a lot. It’s a nice situation for us when we’re away, as it means we’re not that serious. But as soon as we step onto the pitch, the seriousness starts – and that’s a good thing.”

Things certainly got serious when Sweden met Sundhage’s former team USA in the quarter-finals of the Women’s Olympic Football Tournament in Rio last summer. "Pia knows the team really well,” the 32-year-old said. “She was confident. We knew we had already beaten them and drawn with them at tournaments. We’ve always done well against USA, so we knew that we had what it takes to at least play well. Everyone felt that maybe it was our day to do something big, and I think Pia felt the same,” Schelin explained. “She really was confident, and that’s not easy when you’re playing the best team in the world in the quarter-finals."

Learning from criticismSundhage’s belief that her team could achieve something big proved justified as they beat the Stars and Stripes 4-3 in the first penalty shoot-out in the history of the Women’s Olympic Football Tournament. Their semi-final against hosts Brazil also resulted in a 4-3 win on penalties – a success the Sweden co-captain attributes to their talented coach. "She knew what she wanted to do,” Schelin said. “She showed us the way and everyone listened. We felt that we needed to do exactly what she said because it would work. She and her staff were amazing in their preparation from the beginning. Everything was top notch. Without Pia and the people around her, we wouldn’t have reached the final. She was really important for us,” the striker concluded.

Sweden’s achievement is all the more remarkable considering their tentative start to the tournament and the fact that they reached the last eight as one of the two best third-placed sides after the group stage. Despite losing 2-1 to Germany in the final, Sundhage’s side were still able to celebrate winning the country’s first Olympic medal in women’s football and also collected the Fair Play Award. It is therefore no surprise to see Sundhage’s name on the shortlist for The Best FIFA Women’s Coach 2016.

"The great thing about Pia is the way she managed to guide us to the final and how she made us believe,” Schelin said. "If you look at the tournament the year before, we were really disappointed about that. We didn’t do well at the World Cup and then had to listen to what people had to say and how we needed to improve. It can be tough for a coach to change things, but I really felt she took that criticism on board and did something with it. She has a team that believes in her and still wants to move forward with her; it’s not easy to keep going after a poor tournament,” the 32-year-old explained. “She just wants to be a good coach and leader and that’s the most important thing for her. It’s great how she listened to her critics after winning so much and turned it into something good."