The decorated career of Swedish coach Pia Sundhage in women’s football includes Olympic gold medals with the USA in 2008 and 2012 and a silver with her own country in 2016, national and continental titles and personal accolades.
But one big gap in the 63-year-old’s coaching career is a World Cup crown. Next month she will try to achieve that with Brazil, which is also seeking its first trophy in the tournament as the great Marta nears the end of her playing days.
Sundhage said in an interview with The Associated Press at Brazil’s training centre in Teresopolis, outside Rio de Janeiro, she has a chance to triumph when it all kicks off in Australia and New Zealand on July 20.
Her team is in Group F with France — the team that eliminated the Brazilians four years ago in the last 16 — Jamaica and Panama.
“I truly believe the 10 best-ranked teams, like we are, do have a chance to go all the way,” Sundhage said. “If you look at the USA, Germany, Sweden and England, they have a big chance to win.
“But look at Canada. They won an Olympic gold medal (in 2020) and they always come from behind. If you don’t have any injuries, you have a great team, you gain confidence by winning and having a little bit of luck. Any of those could win the title.”
The Swede will announce her squad on Tuesday. She was the USA coach in the 2011 World Cup final, won by Japan in a penalty shootout.
Sundhage took the Brazil job in 2019 and her contract will be up after the 2024 Olympics in Paris. She arrived with knowledge about the country’s football culture but almost no Portuguese-speaking skills, and a demanding style.
Now, as another Women’s World Cup approaches, she has become a fan of Brazilian singers and adopted a more patient approach.
Sundhage said she felt a culture clash when she took the job, with players reliant on their skills but yet to grow in terms of teamwork.
In April, showing her side was on the rise, Brazil drew in England and beat Germany away in two friendlies despite having several players injured, including Marta.
“At the start it was overwhelming,” Sundhage said. “When I went to the U.S. it was the same thing. They were very successful and who am I? Should I change anything? Yes, of course, a little bit. But it couldn’t be too much of a change because they had been successful. And it couldn’t be too small because they could just as well bring in an American coach. It is similar here.
“In Sweden we are very well organized, we have a game plan, especially in defense. When it comes to the U.S. it is go for it, one versus one. And of course that always brings a change to be more flexible and organized. This warm country with warm people is very emotional. They rely on their technique and doing special things that make you shine, your team shine.”
Defender Rafaella agrees Brazil’s first experience with a foreign coach has improved the team’s defence and brought a more tactical approach.
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“She brought her style of a very compact team, it is very hard for others to break our lines. We evolved a lot,” Rafaella told the AP. “Pia is an extrovert during our meetings, she sings and laughs, but she is very demanding about our fitness, intensity. We will never forget our intensive training with her. I hope we can carry those lessons beyond the 2024 Olympics, no matter how long she works with Brazil.”
Sundhage’s team has been affected by injuries. The three that stand out took striker Ludmilla out of the tournament, put the 37-year-old Marta at risk of starting from the bench and cast doubts on midfielder Angelina.
“It is a team game, it is not one player that will win the World Cup. It will be the team and it will be a cohesive team,” said Sundhage, who said some of the players she is adding to the roster “will be unstoppable” within four years.
Sundhage knows Brazil fans will judge her on what happens in the World Cup but trusts she is on the right path. As to what happens after, she is unconcerned. The team’s best previous result was a runners-up campaign in 2007, losing the final to Germany.
“I am on a fantastic journey to the World Cup. Then another fantastic journey to the Olympics in France. And then I have no idea,” said the coach. “What matters is that I’m right here, right now.”
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