When asked what is the best thing about the Sweden women’s national team, Pia Sundhage does not need to think twice. “They bring out the best performances in each other,” she responded in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com.
The Swedish tactician has been in charge of the side since December 2012, and in 2016 she masterminded the team’s most celebrated success: winning silver at the Women’s Olympic Football Tournament, Rio 2016.
“It was a crazy year for the Sweden. After the FIFA Women’s World Cup™ we had to qualify for the Olympics, which we managed to do in the Netherlands. They were three tough matches and we didn’t score many goals, but we found a way to win. After that we had some highs and some lows,” continued Sundhage.
One of those highs was most definitely that historic performance at the Olympics in Rio, when they claimed silver medals. “The Olympic Games? Fantastic!” beamed Sundhage as she reminisced. “I think we had a pretty good start against South Africa and then we came up against Brazil and Marta in Rio. They beat us 5-1, but we recovered. That’s something I’m really proud of, because we were able to somehow pull ourselves together to play China and then beat Brazil and USA on penalties. Reaching the final was really something special. A good start isn’t enough; a good coach isn’t enough – we had to achieve it together.”
Sundhage had previously coached the USA team to two Olympic gold medals, and so to be drawn against the Stars and Stripes gave the fixture an added spice. “After the China game, we came together and I said: ‘I have three pieces of good news. One: we’re in the quarter-finals. Two: we’re playing here and we don’t have to leave our base.’ The players looked around at each other and said, ‘Wow, that’s great.’ And three: we’re playing against the USA!” As one, everyone said, ‘Yes, this is the moment!’ It was a very important reaction for us because it gave us that energy we needed. That night I felt confident and I knew we had a chance.”
Reunion on the horizon As it would transpire, Sundhage’s gut feeling would not let her down. Sweden knocked out USA before seeing off Brazil in the last four, and it was only in the final against Germany that they eventually met their match.
The game ended 2-1 in the Germans’ favour and Sundhage is well aware of who made the difference. “ Marozsan. They have a star player that separates Germany and Sweden. We’re two good sides who play well as a team, but when I see how she curled the ball into the bottom corner… She was able do something like that; we didn’t have a player who could.”
Yet despite falling at the final hurdle, Sundhage considers the silver meal to be the team’s finest achievement during her tenure as coach. She is immensely proud of the road the team have travelled from her very first game against South Africa to last year’s valiant defeat in Rio’s Maracana. Progress has been obvious, and that progress must continue.
Barely a month after the Olympic final, Sweden qualified for this summer’s UEFA Women’s EURO 2017 in the Netherlands, where they can prepare for a group-stage reunion with Germany, plus matches against Italy and Russia.
“We’re going to take another road – to begin with. We’re going to play a bit differently and we have some new players coming through,” said Sundhage. “We have high expectations for this mix of old and new players. We gained some confidence by winning silver and we’ll take that good feeling with us. We’ll also have a strong defence and we’ll improve our attack. I’m really looking forward to the European Championship.”