WINNIPEG, Manitoba – Always the optimist, Pia Sundhage chooses to think the best is yet to come for Sweden.
The 55-year-old Swedish coach leads her team into its opening match of the 2015 Women’s World Cup on Monday against Nigeria after a disconcerting preparation for the tournament.
“We’ve been (on) a little bit of a bumpy road,” Sundhage said before Friday’s practice at a soccer complex on the outskirts of Winnipeg. “And I love that. The World Cup is so much more than a gold medal. It’s actually the road to the gold medal, to enjoy every single day, every single practice. The Swedish way so far has been pretty bumpy, but still, you can reach the gold.”
Sweden will play in Group D – dubbed the Group of Death – alongside the United States (No. 2 in the world), Australia (No. 10) and Nigeria (No. 33, Africa’s best team). Sundhage says her team has the toughest opening match in the group because Nigeria is so hard to scout. The Super Falcons rarely play outside of Africa, which is part of why they aren’t ranked higher.
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After finishing in fourth place at the Algarve Cup in March, Sweden unraveled in a pair of early April home friendly matches, losing to Switzerland and drawing Denmark three days apart. Sundhage publicly called out her defense following the results and captain Caroline Seger held a players-only meeting.
However, Sundhage is now all smiles, just like she was in her four years as U.S. coach, leading the Americans to Olympic gold medals in 2008 and 2012 and a runners-up finish at the 2011 World Cup. She used to sing to her top-ranked American teams to get her messages across, making up for sometimes spotty English.
“I’m a positive person, so I look at it as signs,” she says of Sweden’s recent struggles. “We tried to play with a different system and then we got a bad injury. I love the way that we have changed a little bit. We have the ability to be flexible.”
The injury that Sundhage referenced was to midfielder Hanna Folkesson, who tore her ACL in that draw with Denmark.
Expectations are high in for Sweden – Group of Death be damned – who is among a handful of teams (Sundhage says seven or eight) realistically capable of winning the World Cup.
“I think it’s a good feeling because it’s a big challenge,” says defender Linda Sembrant.
“We have a very, very tough group. Some people say the toughest. But I think we just go in directly in the tournament and have a very tough game so I think we can perform very good.”
Sundhage will draw upon lessons she learned as United States coach, a role in which she won 91 games, losing only six and drawing 10 in four years.
“I learned something in the states, [a] saying: It’s a privilege to play under pressure,” Sundhage says. “Yes, it is a privilege coaching under it.”