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Pia Sundhage: A Way of Living
by Ridge Mahoney, January 3rd, 2008 2:15PM

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TAGS:  women's national team, women's world cup


For the first time, U.S. Soccer has hired a foreigner to coach its women's team. Former Swedish star Pia Sundhage brings two decades of international experience as a player and three seasons coaching in the WUSA to her new job. Most important, she brings a passion for soccer that she hopes will rub off on her players.

She plays guitar. She sings. She named her dog, a boxer, Cruyff Pele Beckenbauer after her three favorite players. She is so deeply steeped in the game she can't imagine her life without it.

"That's my way of living," she says, "to be around soccer."

Sweden has fielded a women's national team for more than three decades, and Pia Sundhage is so highly regarded in her native country that a postage stamp bearing her image was issued in 1988. It depicts her dueling two opponents, playing a ball that doubles as the second "o" in "fotboll," for which no translation is necessary.

Her name doesn't appear on the stamp, but, like the translation, it isn't needed. She debuted for the Swedish team in 1975 against England at the age of 15 and for nearly as long, Sundhage (pronounced Soond-hagah) has been synonymous with 'fotboll.'

"You always respect someone with an illustrious career," says U.S. defender Kate Markgraf, who played the final (2003) WUSA season in Boston with Sundhage as head coach. "She's basically the Mia Hamm or Kristine Lilly of her generation. She just has a wonderful demeanor about her. You learn about soccer but you also learn a lot about attitude, both on and off the field. She played that way, she coaches that way, and she lives her life that way."

Named to replace Greg Ryan as U.S. women's head coach, Sundhage played 146 games and scored 71 goals for Sweden prior to embarking on a coaching career that includes club stints in her native country, a WUSA Coach of the Year award with Boston, and work in 2007 for the Chinese national team as an assistant coach to Marika-Domanski Lyfors. Both resigned in late October, and Sundhage's appointment as U.S. coach came three weeks later.

Her stature as a player and experience of coaching all three years of the WUSA's existence - she spent the 2001 and 2002 seasons as Mark Krikorian's assistant with the Philadelphia Charge prior to taking the Boston job - propelled her to the top of the candidates' list to replace Ryan, whose switch of goalkeepers and a subsequent 4-0 semifinal thrashing by Brazil prompted his departure.

SHORT-TERM HIRE. Yet Sundhage has been hired for the short-term, to correct flaws and shortcomings exposed harshly by Brazil before August, when the 2008 Olympic Games are to be staged in Beijing. She'll be retained if the results and progress are deemed sufficient, but if that means an Olympic gold medal, ergo probably beating Brazil and/or Germany, her task is indeed taxing.

"She's coached some of our players in the WUSA, she's played against some of them and she's been a scout for our team during the [2004] Athens Olympics," said U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati, who along with federation CEO and secretary-general Dan Flynn and Hamm made up the search committee. "So, she fits the two most important criteria I had outlined three weeks ago, mainly that she has experience at the highest possible level and that, in this case as both a player and a coach, she has a knowledge of the American game.

"In Pia's case, it's the former which is her greatest strength because she has only been in the U.S. for a few years, but we are quite confident that she has the experience level and the knowledge of our American players and the set-up here to do what needs to get done, especially in the short term, because that is the objective for the next year."

FIRST CALL. She began her initial camp, a five-day stint at Home Depot Center in early December, in a manner radically unlike that of her predecessors. Unorthodox, and corny, though it was, it immediately and clearly delivered to the players evidence a new age was about to dawn, and subsequent training sessions confirmed that fact.

"She started off our very first meeting singing a Bob Dylan song, 'The Times They Are A-Changing,'" said forward Abby Wambach, who herself has been known to belt out a tune now and again. "No music, just her singing a capella. Right there and then at that moment, I knew we were going to get along.

"It does take a lot of guts. That's one thing that could embarrass other people or it could backfire, but she's very comfortable inside her skin."

Inside that skin is a zeal that has surprised and impressed the U.S. players, who are accustomed to the more practical and pragmatic approach preached by most American coaches, including Ryan; his predecessor, former U.S. international April Heinrichs; and Tony DiCicco, the national team coach before Heinrichs.

Ryan was one of Heinrich's assistant coaches and took over for her following the 2004 Olympics, at which the U.S. won the gold medal. Heinrichs served as an assistant during DiCicco's time as head coach. The hiring of Sundhage has radically altered that line of succession.

"Her approach and the way she's going about our practices is much different than anything we've ever done before," says Wambach, a member of the national team since 2001. "The two coaches before her, April and Greg, were virtually the same. They had very different styles, but they had the same ideas and the same mentality and the same philosophy of soccer.

"It's not only about soccer. She exudes this passion for the game. She talks about loving it, and being passionate, and learning the game and feeling the game. It's not just about doing, it's about feeling. That's very, very important to the players who have gone to that most elite level, that in their bones they feel it and they see it differently. She's one of those people."

SECOND-BEST. Along with passion, Sundhage teaches poise and possession, which the Americans occasionally flashed during the World Cup but couldn't produce against Brazil. The straightforward approach that rolled over dozens of opponents prior to the World Cup ran aground during the tournament, yet still the Americans won a tough group consisting of North Korea, Sweden and Nigeria, and thumped England, 3-0, in the quarterfinals.

Ryan's bizarre switch of goalkeepers prior to the Brazil game, benching Hope Solo in favor of the more experienced Briana Scurry, triggered a frenzy of speculation before the game, and a wildfire of criticism afterward. Solo's bitter postgame comments about Ryan and Scurry roiled the turbulence further and masked somewhat the technical deficiencies and overall caliber of play by an American team clearly second-best.

"You know what?" says Markgraf, whose national team career dates back to 1998. "We just got killed. It wouldn't have mattered. They were the better team that day."

A friendly at the Meadowlands played three months prior to the World Cup might have revealed that fact, but Brazil - missing Marta, who would score seven of Brazil's 17 goals at the World Cup and win both the Golden Ball (MVP) and Golden Shoe (top scorer) awards at the tournament - played tepidly that day in a 2-0 defeat.

'PELLE.' Whether the Americans can match the flair of the Brazilians, or the skill and tactical acumen of the Germans, Sundhage wants players devoted to the cause. At a very early age, she began a quest that set her apart and has directed her life for the past four decades.

"I grew up in a small village [Marback] and when I was 6 years old, I wasn't allowed to play soccer because I was a girl," she says. "It was a boys sport. I played every day with boys but not in real games. The coach of the boys team asked me if I wanted to play in a real game, and I said, 'Yeah, of course' and he said we had to get around [the rules] a little bit.

"So instead of calling me 'Pia', which is a girls name, they called me, 'Pelle,' a boys name. They called me a boys name for two years in order for me to play soccer."

But the battle wasn't won. Far from it. Playing soccer is not the same as excelling at soccer, and the system wasn't set up to satisfy ambitious female players. Fortunately, a tradition of female rights and access to sport and education had already been established.

It's no coincidence that Sweden established a women's league and national team in the early 1970s, more than a decade before the U.S. women's team made its debut. By the time the American women's team had played its first match against Italy in 1985, Sundhage had been an international for a decade.

"Pretty soon, everybody could play," says Sundhage, "but they said, 'the girls could play, women could play, but don't think that you're any good.' This was a big movement because there weren't so many girls and women who wanted to play, but we have a really good club system in Sweden, and they just added girls soccer, so soon we had different kinds of leagues.

"I think this is because we have fought for our rights, and that was my mother, and the women before me. They didn't want to be just a housewife, they wanted to get education and the real job. I think that affects the sport. In the beginning, we didn't have girls playing any kind of team sports. Skating, or track and field, yes, sports like that.

"That's the strength of that system, you have a club, you have a sports house, you know everybody, and first there were boys teams, then we had mixed teams and finally girls teams and women's teams."

Fans of the American women's team long believed it would always be the best in the world. It has won two world championships (1991 and 1999) and two Olympic gold medals (1996, 2004). It has fallen short at the 1995, 2003 and 2007 Women's World Cups and 2000 Olympics. No team has been as successful, but the loss to Brazil confirmed the times have changed.

Sundhage has come no closer than a bronze medal, at the 1991 Women's World Cup. Sweden hosted the 1995 competition, but China knocked out the host in the quarterfinals. She hung on long enough to play in the first Olympic women's soccer competition at the age of 36.

Now 47, her long-term job prospects may hinge on winning a gold medal in Beijing. To accomplish that she first must instill her persona and vision of the game into the character of her team.

"The fact I got a chance to play at the Olympics in 1996 was huge," she says. "I told the players when I was 36 years old and I was so proud to be part of the team that got to play at the Olympics. Soccer, to me, is about much more than gold. For me, soccer is a way of living."

(This article originally appeared in the January 2008 issue of Soccer America magazine.)

 

 

 



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