Pia Sundhage: Swedish Organization, American Attitude, and Brazilian Flair

Former USWNT head coach Pia Sundhage leads Brazil into the 2021 SheBelieves Cup.

By Alex Holmes

Pia Sundhage is once again on American soil, this time as the head coach of the Brazil women’s national team. With her side competing in the SheBelieves Cup, Sundhage returns to familiar territory nearly one decade after a successful stint with U.S. Soccer from 2008 to 2012. She led the USWNT to two Olympic gold medals and a second-place finish at the 2011 World Cup. Now, she is at the helm of a familiar foe. In 2019, Brazil tasked Sundhage with remaking the Canarinhas into a serious world title contender.

Source: Christof Koepsel/Getty Images

Once America’s top soccer rival, Brazil has not cracked the top four of the FIFA world rankings since 2013. Brazilian women’s soccer peaked at the 2007 World Cup, where the team embarrassed the U.S. in the semifinals before falling to Germany in the final. The team finished second in the 2008 Olympics, but since that silver medal, Brazil has not finished in the top three of a World Cup or Olympics.

Brazil has been stagnant for several years in major world tournaments. One of its biggest problems has been finding a new generation of soccer players. Brazilian legends Marta, Formiga, and Christiane have been the team’s foundation for over 14 years, so identifying the nation’s top youth players is now one of Sundhage’s highest priorities.

“Brazil is a big country and we know there are so many good players – how do we find them? How do we identify them? If you’re a girl, you should be able to play,” Sundhage said in a 2020 interview with FIFA.

The Swedish native knows talent—she has over 45 years of soccer experience.She debuted with the Sweden national team at only 15 years old. In over 20 years as a player, Sundhage won first place at the 1984 UEFA Women’s Championship, competed in two World Cup tournaments, and the 1996 Summer Olympics. She was also the first woman to score in an international match at Wembley Stadium in 1989. She finished her playing career with 146 caps for Sweden and her 71 goals rank third all-time in the nation’s history.

Sundhage’s success as a player translated well into success as a manager. She has coached club teams in Sweden, the United States, and Norway. While in the United States, Sundhage won the domestic title with the Boston Breakers in 2003 and earned Coach of the Year honors.

Her international coaching career began as an assistant with China during the 2007 World Cup. After the United States’ crushing 4-0 defeat to Brazil, U.S. Soccer hired Pia Sundhage as the national team’s head coach. Sundhage won gold at the 2008 Beijing and 2012 London Olympics. The team’s second-place finish at the 2011 World Cup in Germany was the federation’s best performance at the event since 1999.

In the fall of 2012, Sundhage left the U.S. to become the head coach for Sweden. Sundhage met the United States in the 2015 World Cup and 2016 Rio Olympics. Sundhage’s team drew the U.S. 0-0 in the World Cup and, one year later, defeated her former team in a penalty kick shootout in the quarterfinals of the Olympics. In 2017, she was appointed head coach of Sweden’s U17 team. Her run with Swedish football came to an end in July 2019, when the Brazilian Football Confederation (CFB) named Sundhage as the new head coach.

Over a year and a half into her role at Brazil, Sundhage has led the Canarinhas in wins over England and Canada, as well as tightly contested matches with World Cup runners-up Netherlands and powerhouse France. Last month, CFB extended Sundhage’s contract to 2024.

Sundhage has coached all over the world and won all over the world. Traditional Sundhage-led teams are organized, value possession, and play tremendous defense. She will look to combine her unique experiences coaching three different countries, as she said in a 2020 FIFA interview:

“I’m trying to bring in a bit of Swedish organization…the American attitude ‘you can do it.’ Then you have the flair, the emotion and the technicality of the Brazilians. 

So, if we can put that together, we will play some nice football I think.”

She will bring her vast experience to Brazil at the SheBelieves Cup this weekend, and the world will be watching to see what Sundhage can do with her new team.

The 2021 SheBelieves Cup begins on Thursday, Feb. 18 with South American rivals Brazil and Argentina kicking off at 4 P.M. The USWNT takes on Canada at 7 P.M. Both games will be televised on FS1. A full schedule for the SheBelieves Cup is available here.

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