A way of living
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
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
"You always respect someone with an illustrious career," says U.S. defender
Named to replace
Her stature as a player and experience of coaching all three years of the WUSA's existence -- she spent the '01 and '02 seasons as
Yet Sundhage has been hired for the short-term, to correct flaws and shortcomings exposed harshly by Brazil before August, when the '08 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 ['04] Athens Olympics," said U.S. Soccer president
"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."
Sundhage 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
"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
Ryan was one of Heinrichs' assistant coaches and took over for her following the '04 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 '01. "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."
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
"You know what?" says Markgraf, whose national team career dates back to '98. "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
Whether or not 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 girl's name, they called me, 'Pelle,' a boy's name. They called me a boy's 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 ('91 and '99) and two Olympic gold medals ('96, '04). It has fallen short at the '95, '03 and '07 Women's World Cups and '00 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 '91 Women's World Cup. Sweden hosted the '95 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."