EURO 2013

Swedish football maestro who snubbed Obama

Sweden's coach of the ladies team has always done things her own way in a long and hugely successful career. As she bids for Euro 2013 glory, outspoken trailblazer Pia Sundhage is the obvious choice for our Swede of the Week

Swedish football maestro who snubbed Obama

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.

SEE ALSO: A list of The Local’s past Swedes of the Week

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.”

Patrick Reilly

Follow Patrick on Twitter here

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.

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Sundhage: The times they are a changin’ for Sweden

Sweden coach Pia Sundhage is hoping for a change of luck against old foes Germany to win her third consecutive women's football gold medal in Friday's final.

Sundhage: The times they are a changin' for Sweden
Sweden football coach Pia Sundhage meets the press in Rio. Photo: Tobias Röstlund/TT
Two-time world champions Germany have an impressive record against Sweden, winning all three previous Olympic meetings between the sides in 2000, 2004 and 2008, as well as a 4-1 thrashing at last year's World Cup.
“They have been winning against us too many times. They have to lose some time, hopefully it is tomorrow,” said a cheerful Sundhage, who ended her press conference Thursday by singing a line from Bob Dylan classic “The Times They Are A Changin'.”
Sundhage led the USA to gold in 2008 and 2012, but insists a third title with her native Sweden will mean more given the limited expectations of a side that only reached the quarter-finals by finishing as one of the two best third-placed sides in the group stages.
“It is one thing for the US to play under such pressure. There were so many people expecting US to win the gold.”
“When we started this road for Olympic qualification in March not many people expected us to be here.”
“Tomorrow will be the very best experience I have had with an Olympic gold medal.”
Germany coach Silvia Neid will take charge of the national team for the final time after 11 years at the Maracana.
“What can be nicer than have your last game playing for the gold medal and playing in this fantastic stadium,” said Neid, who will resume a three-decade long rivalry with Sundhage dating back to their playing careers.
However, she refused to try and out-sing her Swedish counterpart.
“I can't sing. I can dance, but I need Pia to do the music.”