Pia Sundhage, one of the most widely respected coaches in the women’s game, was announced on Sunday as the new coach of the Swedish women’s national team less than one month after seeing her US Women’s National Team secure the gold medal in the London 2012 Olympics.
Just weeks after the resignation of Thomas Dennerby, following an underwhelming Swedish Olympic campaign, Sundhage announced she would step down from the US role she has fulfilled for the last five years ‘to pursue opportunities in Sweden’, before Karl-Erik Nilsson, Swedish Federation President, revealed the exact nature of these opportunities on Monday.
For Sweden, undoubtedly, this is a coup of significant proportions. During her tenure as US Head Coach, Sundhage has presided over two Olympic Gold Medals and a surprise defeat to Japan in the 2011 World Cup Final, delivering a near 90% win percentage in competitive fixtures. As remarkable as this is in itself, the level of her achievement is only really revealed in the context of the manner of her appointment in 2007, to a US team struggling to manage the egos of certain star players – notably Hope Solo, whose demotion to the bench for the US’ World Cup semi-final in 2007 contributed to a crushing 4-0 defeat and a clear rift amongst one of the world’s most talented groups of footballers.
Sundhage, who earned 146 caps during her playing days, returns to a nation who will host the European Championships in 2013 with high hopes of delivering a first tournament victory since her own playing days in 1984 – when they triumphed in the inaugural (and unofficial) European Championships with Sundhage herself scoring in the first leg of the final and netting the winning penalty in the shoot-out against England.
As for the US, Sundhage’s departure may represent a strong opportunity to future proof the nation’s standing as the leading lights in women’s football. So strong was Sundhage’s professional record that departure was only ever going to be on her terms; yet under her watch, a core of veteran players have remained crucial to the team’s success. With the 2015 World Cup to be held in Canada, the stakes will be high and with players including Abby Wambach, Christie Rampone, Shannon Boxx, Megan Rapinoe and Carli Lloyd all north of 27 (indeed, all excluding Rapinoe are 30+) the national team may well require a new spine by the time the tournament arrives. By engaging new leadership now, the possibility of transitioning to a new setup in time for the World Cup seems rather easier – existing coaches, after all, find it understandably challenging to dismantle sides that have delivered them significant personal success.
Sunil Gulati, President of US Soccer, hinted that the next coach will probably come from within the American federation – and rightly so. The infrastructure has enough budding and experienced coaches to provide ample competition for what is probably the top job in the women’s game. One thought though – if the US are looking for a coach with outstanding experience, clear managerial and playing credentials, a thorough understanding of the national game, a commitment to cutting-edge coaching methods and a clear track record of bedding in new talent, a certain name may spring to mind. Most within the English game will be hoping such a point doesn’t transpire, but were Gulati to pick up the phone to Hope Powell, he could be presented with a truly compelling case.
Image from http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com (thanks!)