RIO DE JANEIRO — Pia Sundhage might be the most intriguing coach at these Olympics, and not just because she has led her native Sweden on a stunning run to Friday’s women’s Olympic soccer final against Germany (4:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN). On Wednesday, Sundhage went viral on Twitter when a reporter resurrected her famous 2014 quote when she was asked if she could coach a men’s soccer team.
“Well, Angela Merkel runs a whole f---ing country.”
It was Pure Pia: Direct, funny and smart, to say nothing of a little bawdy. Sundhage, 56, has been nothing if not colorful during her 41 years in the game as an elite player and coach. Over the decades, she has played the guitar and sung folk songs at press conferences and FIFA world player of the year ceremonies. “I think football is music,” she said on Thursday before busting out some Bob Dylan lyrics in perfect tune.
But don’t be misled by Sundhage’s warm-and-fuzzy folk singer stuff. She’s a ruthless competitor and will do whatever it takes within the rules to win. We’ve seen that more clearly than ever in these Olympics, when Sundhage has transformed her Swedish team into a bus-parking, counter-attacking team that has pulled two upsets in the knockout rounds against the U.S. and Brazil despite being outshot by a combined 60 to 12 in those games.
U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo called Sundhage’s strategy “cowardly.” Brazil’s Cristiane called out Sundhage too.
But Sundhage just … doesn’t … care. “My responsibility is to try to find a way to win. That’s all that matters, especially [in the final],” she said on Thursday. “That discussion of whether the women’s game is going in one direction or the other, that’s very interesting, but it’s not my task to make sure that we have that discussion … I will be happy regardless of how we play.”
One of the best things that could have happened to Sweden in this tournament was when they got destroyed 5-1 in the group stage by Brazil. The Swedes tried to play an open game and got punished without mercy. But that loss helped convince Sundhage that her team couldn’t go toe-to-toe with teams like the U.S. or Brazil. And so she drastically altered her strategy, deploying 10 players behind the ball and looking for the perfect opportunity to strike on the counter (as they did against the Americans).
Without that 5-1 loss, Sundhage said, “We would have taken a little bit different road, because we do have attacking personalities in the team.” It helped, too, that Sundhage wasn’t introducing something entirely new to her players during the tournament. She pointed out that Sweden played a similar defend-and-counter style in a 3-0 win against Japan in a pre-Olympic friendly last month.
If beating the U.S. and Brazil was shocking, then taking down Germany on Friday might be even more so. The last nine times that Sweden has met the Germans in a major tournament—the World Cup, the Olympics and the Euro—these are the teams that have won:
Germany. Germany. Germany. Germany. Germany. Germany. Germany. Germany. Germany.
The Germans smashed Sundhage’s Sweden 4-1 in last year’s World Cup Round of 16, the latest in a long line of big-game German victories that includes the 2003 World Cup final, a Euro 2013 semifinal and the 2004 Olympic bronze medal game. But Sundhage does hold on to a cherished memory: Beating Germany 3-2 in the 1995 World Cup group stage on home soil. In that game, Sundhage scored a late equalizer as part of a comeback from a 2-0 deficit against a German team that included Silvia Neid—who will be coaching Germany in Friday’s final, the last game of her 11-year tenure.
Yet Sundhage said her tactical approach against Germany won’t be exactly the same as it was against the U.S. and Brazil. What’s the hardest part about playing Germany? “Their attacking style,” Sundhage said, “especially when they decide to attack on the flanks or centrally. They go for it 110%. If we can sort that out in the very beginning, I think we have a big chance to win. Because sooner or later they need to lose. They will lose. And maybe that happens tomorrow … They’ve been winning against us too many times in my opinion, but I think it’s about time to change that.”
Sundhage has already won two Olympic titles when she had the best players. Now she’s on the verge of doing it in a completely different way. “When I started coaching, I wanted to play attacking football and take a lot of chances, especially with the U.S. team,” she said on Thursday. “But the road we’ve taken, whatever team I have in front of me I adjust my way of play and try to coach that way. Because you need to get the most out of the players.”
That’s not cowardly. That’s coaching.