- Pia Sundhage reveals she grew up idolising Pele
- The Swede recounts the bizarre way in which she accepted the Brazil job
- She discusses Megan Rapinoe, Cristiane and having ‘secrets’ with Marta
In the 1960s, whispers surfaced that Brazil were about to hire a foreign coach for the first time. Bela Guttmann never was offered the job. Nor was Johan Cruyff at Romario’s suggestion, Jose Mourinho or, despite being “desperate” to guide Brazil at a FIFA World Cup™ they staged, Pep Guardiola.
It took almost 60 years from the initial speculation for a foreigner to finally sit in the Brazil national team hot-seat – one born, ironically, around the time the Guttmann gossip began. Pia Sundhage, who grew up in Sweden when it was still riding the samba roller coaster crested by Garrincha and Pele, assumed charge following the FIFA Women’s World Cup France 2019™.
FIFA.com caught up with the 59-year-old, who led USA to back-to-back Women’s Olympic Football Tournament golds, to discuss, among other things, her idolisation of Pele, being the first foreigner to guide Brazil and her excitement at coaching Marta.
Pia, you grew up idolising Pele, right?
The first country when it comes to football is, pretty much, Brazil. My name is Pia but I used to call myself Pele. I thought it was almost the same. And as I got a little older I had three idols: Cruyff, Pele and [Franz] Beckenbauer.
How does it feel to be the first foreigner to coach a football-obsessed nation?
It’s huge. In many ways, not only because I’m in charge of a fantastic country and very technical players. It shows that it’s possible for women to get a job abroad – even in Brazil. So hopefully I’d like to look at myself as some sort of role model, ambassador. It’s great for me personally, but also for women’s football.
How did it come about?
I thought it was pretty funny – people were congratulating me before I’d even been contacted! Then I got a phone call from the CBF and Marco [Aurelio Cunha] just asked me if I was interested in becoming the head coach of Brazil. I said ‘Yes!’ That was it, I didn’t ask him about anything. Nothing, I just wanted to do it. Brazil is football, it has that great taste of football. Then when I hung up I thought, ‘Maybe I should have talked a little bit about how many years, the contract and so on (laughs). But the feeling you get when somebody asks you this wonderful question, I just wanted to continue to feel such happiness without that feeling of, ‘Let’s discuss details’. It’s such a big honour, so it was so easy to say yes.
You’ve received a really warm reception from the Brazilian fans. Did you expect it?
I didn’t expect it. It has been overwhelming. It’s funny, everyone in Sweden says to me, ‘Now you’re big time!’ It’s been fantastic. I’m surprised but everybody recognises me. Today, for example, I went for a walk on the beach and a man came up to me and we ended up discussing the Olympics in 2004. He knew the storyline. So I started talking about Marta, Rosana, Cristiane, Pretinha, and it was very nice.
The Brazilian people are very positive. I’m really happy with the statement the CBF made. Not only did they hire me – a foreign coach, a woman – but they hired female coaches for the U-17 and U-20, which I believe is very important. The CBF has taken a fantastic step in a great direction for women’s football.
What did you think of Brazil’s performances at France 2019?
I thought that when Brazil played well, they played really well, [were] one of the best teams in the world. But when they didn’t play well there was a huge drop. Against Jamaica, they created a lot of chances, scored three goals, but then against Australia they made a lot of mistakes. It was an interesting game against Italy. What was really nice to see was the performance against France, who are a really good side.
Hopefully we can take the best from that game and try to make some changes. I don’t think we need to make too many changes because we have some very good players. I’d like to bring some Swedish organisation – both defensively and offensively. Sweden work together, they try to win the ball back high up the pitch. And I think we need a little bit of American mentality. If you look at the technique the players have here in Brazil, it’s impressive. But the US try to win in every second of a match, they never give up, work really hard.
What did you make of Sweden’s and USA’s France 2019 campaigns?
I was very impressed with the way Jill Ellis won the 2015 World Cup and made changes to win it again in 2019. I thought the US had some very even games, especially the France one. They had a tough run, some strong opponents, and I thought overall they were the best team. I coached Megan Rapinoe and Tobin Heath for years and they are players who make the difference. When Megan Rapinoe’s good, she’s really good. She’s unpredictable too.
As for Sweden, I was very impressed with the way Peter Gerhardsson coached the team. I think with Sweden it’s about the team. If you look at the ten nominees for The Best FIFA Women’s Player, there’s not one Swede, but they played collectively and finished third. Well done.
How excited are you to coach Marta?
I’m very excited to coach Marta. And the great part is that many of the Brazilians speak English, but they don’t speak Swedish, so Marta and I will have some secrets! (laughs) I’ve already spoken to Marta and she seems to be thrilled. I’ve been really impressed with her since the first time I saw her play, at the U-20 Women’s World Cup in Thailand in 2004. I’ve followed her career since, the World Cups. She’s so important to Brazil. If you look at all the players I’ve seen since World Cup ’91, with a lot of great American players like Mia Hamm, I think Marta is one of the very best of all time.
Cristiane is currently injured. Is she part of your plans and have you spoken to her?
I bumped into her the other day when I went to watch a game. Everybody seems thrilled to start over again, and that includes Cristiane. It’s been tough for her because she’s been out for a while. Nothing comes easy. Like everybody else she needs to work hard to come back and be called up by the national team. I think she did very well at the World Cup – some good attacking plays, she scored a hat-trick, she’s very good in the air. Hopefully she’ll be back.
How does it feel to start your reign with a derby against Argentina on Thursday?
Perfect. It’s absolutely perfect. I’m really grateful to the CBF that we have a chance to play at home in Sao Paulo. Everybody is excited to see the team, and a fixture against Argentina… it doesn’t get much better.
You’ve won two Olympic golds already. Can Brazil win Tokyo 2020?
Yes, if we try to improve every day. If you look at the game against France, there’s a small difference between success and failure. But if you look at the quality of the Brazilian players at the World Cup, and look at the players we have coming through, yes, we have a chance.