Few people dare turn down an invitation to dinner at the White House, but Pia Sundhage has – twice. Those who know the then-coach of the American women’s football team weren’t surprised when she declined an audience with US Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Blazing a trail and marching to her own beat is what Sundhage, 53, has done her entire life. She’s now tasked with delivering the European Championship, for which she has returned home to help Sweden win for the first time in decades.
“Pia is the classic example of somebody who has come from a small town (Ulricehamn) and has gone out into the world determined to make an impact. She’s fearless,” Ivar Andersen, culture editor of Dala-Demokraten, told The Local. Andersen argued in an op-ed on Wednesday that such are Sundhage’s talents, that Sweden should consider making her the coach of the men’s team.
Her achievements have been vast both as a player and a coach. In her youth, she used a boy’s name to enable her to play the sport she loved and earned the first of her 146 appearances for Sweden’s national women’s side at the tender age of 15.
Sundhage enjoyed a long career as a professional at home and in Italy. She scored the winning penalty in the 1984 European Championship and netted the opener in a the first-ever ladies match at the Old Wembley Stadium in London.
But it is her success as a coach that has really earned her recognition from her peers, both male and female. Sundhage transformed the fortunes of the US national team, winning two Olympic Gold Medals, and shared the stage with Lionel Messi after being named Fifa’s World Coach of the Year for Women’s football last year.
Frequently breaking into song, she cites Bob Dylan as a favourite, she adopts a 1-7 criticism/praise ratio when dealing with her players.
“I try to use my body language to emphasize what is good. I’m looking for good things, instead of doing the opposite and try constantly to adjust mistakes,” she said in a 2011 interview.
Her success in the States elevated Sundhage’s profile back home and there was a longing for her to take over the national team. Her sexuality – Sundhage is openly gay – was never an issue across the pond, said Andersen.
“In America, they really value sports performance and Pia was hugely successful. Nothing else really matters,” he said, adding that he was not surprised that she had turned her nose up at the White House invites.
“She’s a hardcore socialist so going to the White House to have a cosy chit-chat with George Bush isn’t her style. Pia knows her politics,” added Andersen.
Her challenge now is to deliver a major title for the Swedish national ladies team. It was, she said upon appointment, her “dream job” but beyond that another role may become a reality – coaching the men’s team.
Sundhage’s name has topped fan polls conducted to find a new Swedish manager in the past. Her success and standing in the game would make her an obvious chance but her gender does not. No woman has yet managed a top class men’s football team.
“Pia has always been about breaking down boundaries and has never backed away from a challenge. She is the best football coach we’ve ever had and would love the job,” said Andersen.
So how would Zlatan Ibrahimovic react to being told by a woman that he needs to improve his finishing?
“He’s at the stage in his career where he is very experienced and listens to the right coach. I’m sure he would recognize Pia is the best option and set an example to the other plays to do the same,” Andersen said.
“The chances of her making history and taking charge of the men’s team are slim as the National Football Association is conservative and consists mainly of older men,” said Andersen.
He added; “But if Pia keeps performing the way she is then she would have to be a contender.”
Editor’s Note: The Local’s Swede of the week is someone in the news who – for good or ill – has revealed something interesting about the country. Being selected as Swede of the Week is not necessarily an endorsement.