To a certain extent, Pia Sundhage and Anouschka Bernhard are heading into uncharted waters. They are part of the first group of participants in the new FIFA Coach Mentorship Programme – a crucial step in the development of women’s football.
Launched in October 2018
Partnership between 17 experienced male and female coaches and 21 up-and-coming female women’s football coaches
Run by the FIFA Women’s Football Development department
Personal meetings and discussion over 12 months
End of the programme: November 2019
58-year-old Sundhage certainly has plenty of experience from her time as coach of both the Swedish and the US national teams, and so it came as no surprise that she was Bernhard’s first choice as mentor. "I thought about what I wanted out of that programme. I have heard so many things about how Pia works and talks with the players, and it’s extraordinary," said Bernhard, who is ten years younger than her mentor. “I want to improve my performance and in that regard, she can help me the most. She is simply one of the best."
Another element that brings the two together is that they are both currently in charge of the U-16 teams of their respective countries. "It's perfect because we talk about the same things," said Sundhage, with Bernhard adding: "The interesting thing is that we're now on the same level, we talk about similar problems that girls at the age of 15 have in Sweden as well as in Germany".
After the initial workshop for everyone to get to know one another in Zurich in October, the time has now come for personal visits. To begin with, Sundhage is observing Bernhard in her environment, which included a training course for the German U-16 girls in Kaiserau last week. Later this year, Bernhard is set to visit her mentor in Sweden, with the two keeping in touch between times via Skype or WhatsApp, with other potential meetings to come. "It's up to us how we live it, how often we chat," Bernhard explains.
Head coach of Sweden U-15 – U-17 girls
Double Olympic Gold medal winner as coach of the USA (2008, 2012)
FIFA Women’s World Cup runner-up as coach of the USA (2011)
Olympic silver medal winner as coach of Sweden (2016)
FIFA Women’s Coach of the Year (2012)
Former Sweden international
Head coach of Germany U-16 girls
European U-17 champion as coach of Germany (2012, 2014, 2016, 2017)
European champion as a player with Germany (1995)
FIFA Women’s World Cup runner-up as a player with Germany (1995)
Anyone who saw them together in Kaiserau will immediately have seen how well they get on - not entirely surprising given that the pair go way back. The first time they met was on the pitch in 1995, on opposing sides of the final of the European Championships ("which Germany won", as Sundhage points out), and so it did not take them long to start getting down to basics regarding the development of women’s football.
"The first World Cup 1991, it was all about attacking. Big scorelines, 5-0, 6-0, this will not happen in the major tournaments today. Even the smallest nations are well organised now," Sundhage says, and again Bernhard is in total agreement: "The whole game is faster, more technical, tactics are a lot better. Women's football has made huge strides in the last 15 years".
What makes these two working together so special is the fact that later in the year, they will be pitted against one another once again at the annual Nordic Cup for girls’ U-16 teams. "We talked about whether it was OK to share things with a future opponent. But when we talk to each other, I feel we don't have this in our mind. We talked about our tactics yesterday and she gets some insight from our videos and tactical boards, but we don't really mind that," says Bernhard about the openness of their exchanges. "It will be interesting to see our analysis of the games after they've happened," Sundhage added. "It's not right or wrong in tactics, it's about preferences."
"What was very impressive to me is the fact that Pia knows her strengths as well as her weaknesses. And to her, those are not necessarily bad things. I have to think about how to work with the staff with your own strengths and weaknesses," says Bernhard when asked whether she has already been given any suggestions.
The foundation for a successful relationship seems to have been laid, with Sundhage also inviting Bernhard to Solna in early April when Sweden and Germany meet in a friendly ahead of the FIFA Women’s World Cup France 2019.