Pia: There will never be another Formiga

  • Pia Sundhage waxes lyrical about the recently retired Formiga

  • She discusses Marta, Debinha and “amazing” Sweden

  • Pia believes Brazil can finally deliver a major trophy before 2024

Has anyone, in women’s football history, shared grass with as many immortals as Pia Sundhage? During the ebullient Swede’s 46 years in the game, across various capacities, she’s competed with or against the likes of Michelle Akers, Mia Hamm, Sun Wen, Birgit Prinz, Hanna Ljungberg, Kelly Smith, Abby Wambach, Carli Lloyd, Christine Sinclair, Megan Rapinoe and Marta. Yet one woman, whose celebrity is dwarfed by those of the aforementioned, leaves Pia more awe-struck than anybody: Formiga. The midfielder has just ended her 26-year international career having played in seven FIFA Women’s World Cups™ and as many Olympic Games. In a festive-season chat with FIFA, Pia raves about the 43-year-old, reveals whether she had to persuade Marta to continue playing for Brazil, opines on the best team in the world, backs A Seleção to win a major trophy before her contract expires in 2024 and discusses living in Rio de Janeiro.

FIFA: What did you think of Formiga’s career? Pia Sundhage: UN... REAL. I have to say, I’ve seen her playing all these Olympics, and I’ve been there too. But I’ve been playing and scouting and coaching. She’s been playing – nothing else! To play seven Olympics and seven World Cups, wow, it’s just amazing. It’s hard to describe how big she is. How people look at her, how people treat her, how grateful people are for everything she’s done. She’s not a woman with big words. She is more so a woman with big actions. The way she’s played, all over the world, it’s really, really impressive. I’ll say this now: there will never be another Formiga. Not now, not in 100 years, not ever. I don’t think there’s anyone else you can say that about. Not even on the men’s side. And let’s remember how women’s football was treated at the beginning. She has broken so many barriers – for former players, for current players, for future players, for anyone involved in the women’s game – through not only her football but by the person that she is, her attitude. You can only imagine how many obstacles she’s had to overcome, how many times she was told ‘no’, but she’s kept on going and played this kind of football until now. I’m really, really proud of Formiga. She doesn’t know how much she means to me and to women’s football.

What was her farewell game like? For me it was very emotional. I had a similar journey – I wasn’t allowed to play football at the very beginning. Marta came here and did a speech, which was really nice. For me it was very emotional watching Formiga and seeing her mum come to the stadium to watch her play for the first time – that was really, really special. I will always remember this day and her last 15 minutes in the national team.

How would you assess Brazil’s Olympic campaign? It was difficult because of COVID. We couldn’t prepare and we didn’t have enough [friendly] games. And getting eliminated on penalty kicks is also difficult. But I think it sent us a message: we need to do better. I’d say the result of our campaign was almost ok, the performances could have been so much better, so that’s why I criticise myself and the coaching. It’s been a long time since Brazil won a medal at the Olympics or World Cup, and we really wanted to change that. We will now do everything we can to improve so that we can change that in 2023. What did you think of Sweden’s campaign? I think it was amazing. I’m a little bit proud because I was there at the European Championship [in 2013]. We played really well and got knocked out in the semi-finals. Everything has happened after that, ups and downs. Peter Gerhardsson has done a very, very good job with the team. I coached Fridolina Rolfo, Stina Blackstenius and so on, and they have gone on to become really good players who make such an impact. That final and that silver medal were amazing. I’m proud that I’ve met those players and of the job they did. Peter and his team did an excellent job and I’m very happy for Sweden.

Who do you think is the best team in the world right now? Oooh, what a question. It’s hard to judge teams like France and England because we haven’t seen them play a big tournament since the World Cup. The US were very impressive at the World Cup, they seemed a good way ahead of the rest, and they’re always very impressive. But I have to put Sweden up there. I think the US and Sweden are the best two teams in the world right now. Did you have a conversation with Marta after the Olympics and did you have to persuade her to continue playing for Brazil? I talk to Marta all the time but, yes, I did have a conversation with her directly after the Olympics. We spoke about the last game and she said we could do much better. I told her I wanted her to think about the future, and it was pretty straightforward: she wants to play this beautiful game and she wants to keep wearing this shirt and representing her country. And that was so great to hear. Marta’s no longer the player who dominates games the whole way through like she used to. I remember coaching against her in 2011 and, wow, she was good. But she means so much to this team. The way she conducts herself and how much she wants to win, it’s infectious. She inspires the youngsters coming through and the top players a lot. And Marta still can deliver that killer final pass. And the best thing about Marta, besides having a big Brazilian heart, is that she always tries to do her best: in training, in games, in interviews. It’s amazing what she means to Brazilian football. She’s one of the greatest ambassadors this game has ever seen. I’ve seen a lot of them in the US, but Marta is huge, so important to Brazil and this sport.

What do you think of Debinha? Debinha’s been growing on me since the very first day I coached her and she continues to grow on me. She was always very talented, but now she’s scoring goals. She goes out wide, plays centrally, makes runs in behind the defence. Have you seen how much she runs? She’s unselfish and brings out the best in other performers. She’s tricky, crafty, sly, has great endurance and scores goals – that’s some combination. I’ll tell you this: I’m glad Debinha is Brazilian.

You extended your contract until 2024. How confident are you that Brazil can win either the World Cup in 2023 or the Olympics in Paris the following year? The World Cup and the Olympics are incredible tournaments. To win, you need to have a little bit of luck, but you need to prepare for luck. I learned this from Jill Ellis, actually. When she was my assistant coach she was telling me, ‘The World Cup and the Olympics are not 100-metre races – they’re marathons’. And she’s absolutely right. So we just started our marathon after the Olympics. We’ve brought in some young players, we’ve changed the way we play a little bit, and we’re trying to improve. If we continue and our preparations go well throughout – the Copa America, if we qualify for the World Cup – then we have a big chance. We have technical players who are fast. Now, the job is to be a cohesive team, and that’s my job. I would like to believe we have good enough staff to do this. So, to answer your question, I think we have a good chance and that’s inspiring for us. Do you enjoy living in Brazil? I love it. It’s warm and I love that it has warm people too. It’s challenging because it’s a different culture. As a Swede, you’re always on time, you’re organised. Here’s a little bit different! (laughs) But I’ve improved my paciência (Portuguese for ‘patience’). I’m more relaxed and don’t get as stressed about these things. But living in Rio is wonderful and I love it.