When the inaugural European Competition for Women's Football came down to Sweden's last kick in a tense penalty shoot-out with England, Pia Sundhage placed the ball down hoping her nerves would prove more reliable than her predictions.
The date was 27 May 1984, the location Kenilworth Road, Luton, and the English had recovered from losing the first leg to level the tie at 1-1 overall. "The day before [the second leg], our coach Ulf Lyfors asked who would take the last penalty," Sundhage explained to uefa.com. "I was positive it wouldn't come to that so I volunteered. He looked at me as if to say 'You've promised now'." True to her word, the pioneering midfielder fired the ball in to make history, as Sweden became the first ever women's European champions.
Whatever the reasons, though, there was nobody better qualified to apply the finishing touch than Sundhage. It was her diving header that earned Sweden victory in the first leg, and she scored a further 70 goals in 146 appearances for her country. Her charisma both on and off the pitch has helped transform the women's game almost beyond recognition in Sweden, and she continues to raise the profile of the sport in her current role as a coach.
"It's easy for me to appreciate speaking to the media, because we didn't see any of that in the beginning. In fact, they laughed at us at the start," she recalls. Indeed, much has changed since Sundhage first sought an outlet to express her passion for the game: "I started when I was five or six and had to play with boys because there were no girls' or women's teams. But I was always one of the first to be picked."
She eventually found like-minded girls at IFK Falköping, and her impressive displays as a 14-year-old earned her a call-up to the national squad barely a year later. "It was in 1975 against England and we won 2-0 in Gothenburg. The national coach rang me up and I read a report in the paper too, which was obviously a very big thing for me at 15. But I wasn't nervous because I had quite good technical skills, more so than some of the others, and that made me comfortable with the group." So comfortable, in fact, that she became an immovable fixture in the side until her retirement in 1996.
With Sundhage pulling the strings in midfield, Sweden were back to claim runners-up honours in the 1987 and 1995 European finals. "I also remember the [FIFA] World Cup in 1991 in China, when we won the bronze, and the 1996 Olympic Games. They were big events for me and the development of the game," she said. On the domestic front she clinched four Swedish league titles and four Swedish cups with Jitex BK and her last club Hammarby. But not content with dazzling crowds on the pitch, she began juggling playing and coaching responsibilities as early as 1990.
The same understanding of the game that set her apart as a player has served her well as a coach and, after excelling with various age groups for the Swedish national side, she was offered the role of assistant with the Philadelphia Charge in 2001. A year later, she took over the reins of the Boston Breakers to become only the second female coach in WUSA history, and went on to be named Coach of the Year in her first season. "It was a unique experience for me to be a professional coach in the States," she says. "Just being close to players like Kristine Lilly and Maren Meinert was something special, and it gave me a lot of confidence and new ideas." When WUSA folded she returned to to coach KIF Örebro DFF between 2005 and 2007, and after a spell as assistant for the China national team she was appointed to the United States helm, leading them to 2008 Olympic gold.
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