Monday 29 November 2021, 11:00

Pia Sundhage on the first FIFA Women's World Cup and the best players she's ever seen

  • The first-ever FIFA Women’s World Cup took place in China PR in 1991

  • Pia Sundhage inspired Sweden to bronze at it 30 years ago today

  • She discusses that experience and the best players she’s ever seen

The flash remarks took place on a Guangzhou corridor floor 30 years ago today. Its initiator probably has no recollection. Pia Sundhage remembers it in vivid detail as if it unfolded yesterday. What she was wearing, how she was sitting, everything. “There’s a big difference between winning and losing this game,” the head of the Swedish delegation bellowed. “You will go home with a medal or nothing.” The consequence of the match for third place instantly hit home. Pia was hellbent on taking home a medal from the maiden FIFA Women’s World Cup™. And she did, a goal decorating a sublime individual display form the forward as Sweden trashed Germany 4-0. Pia speaks to FIFA about her China 1991 experience and the best players she’s ever seen.

FIFA: What was your reaction when you heard FIFA would be staging the first World Cup? Pia Sundhage: We heard the rumours and when they announced it we all said, ‘It’s about time’. At the time I was 31. I had been playing since I was 15 years old, dreaming about competing against the best teams in the world. So for me it was a milestone, some sort of recognition. It was very exciting. A place in the knockout stage came down to Sweden versus Brazil. What did you think of Roseli and Pretinha? Back then when you talked about Brazil – and you still do – it was about great technical players. They were very good players. Pretinha was a great goalscorer too. It was pretty cool to see them play in the World Cup.

You scored the goal that eliminated the Seleção. As Brazil coach today, how do you feel about that? (laughs) I have to be careful here! (laughs). But seriously, Brazil has always been special to me. When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a football player. Girls were not supposed to play football, but I called myself Pele, Cruyff, Beckenbauer. I used to really like calling myself Pele – Pia and Pele, I thought they sounded similar. And Pele was the best player in the world. Yes, I scored against Brazil in that game, but I also remember we lost against Brazil four years later. Then I coached against them and it was always special. Sweden played the hosts China in the quarter-finals in front of 55,000 fans. What was that like? I had never experienced anything like that in my life. So many people, so many cameras. Gunilla Paijkull, the coach, she prepared us for it very differently. We were looking forward to playing against the best. China were one of the best and we won. It was an incredible atmosphere and a very special day.

The third-place play-off went perfectly for Sweden. You scored, you beat Germany 4-0 and took home bronze medals. How did that feel? I can remember that day very well. Germany were also a very good team. You can tell that with what they went on to achieve. It’s funny but I remember this vividly. We were sat in the corridor and the general secretary – what you’d probably call the president these days – spoke to us. It wasn’t a meeting, it was spontaneous. I remember exactly where I was sitting, how I was sitting, where everyone was. He said, ‘There’s a big difference between winning and losing this game. You will go home with a medal or nothing.’ We really wanted to do our very best. Winning 4-0 was just fantastic and we got to go home with a medal.

Pia Sundhage and Sweden line up before a game at China 1991

USA beat Norway in the Final. What did you think of that USA team? We didn’t know much about US back then. We went to the US to play them three years before and they’d obviously come on a lot and prepared very well. What I always remember is Michelle Akers-Stahl – she was amazing. She was so good in the air. I also remember April Heinrichs, who became such a fantastic coach. I can tell you that she was a fantastic player too. Then you had Julie Foudy and those guys. I remember they were so strong in the midfield. We knew a lot about Norway from the European championship, but it was so cool to see the US. They always went forward. They were a very good team and it was a high-quality game. Are there any special memories from off the pitch at the first World Cup? Yes, going for lunch. There was a smell that I was not used to. There was all these different kinds of rice and food. I remember there was a pool outside. It was so important to do both: relax outside the restaurant and then eat well inside it. Back then we didn’t have chefs, so you had to do your best to get as much as you can. I remember that I ate a lot of rice (laughs). It was difficult – it was a different culture. Remember that back then we didn’t travel as much, didn’t have the internet. We didn’t really know much about China. I’ll say this: it was very different.

Are you still in touch with your 1991 team-mates? Some of them, yeah. Elisabeth Leidinge, the goalkeeper. She’s a goalkeeping coach and has worked for the Swedish FA like I have. Anette Hansson, the sweeper in the good, old days. She was actually a journalist back then. Anneli Andelen, now she’s in politics in Sweden and back then she was a goalscorer. In all your time playing and coaching, who have been the best players you’ve seen? That’s a tough one. If I start with playing, I’d say Michelle Akers is one of them. As a coach, I coached Victoria Svensson when she was a little girl. Maren Meinert, she challenged me by her way of playing. I have to mention Abby Wambach, I have to mention Lotta Schelin, I have to mention Megan Rapinoe and Carli Lloyd – they started their careers with me. There are so many great American players. And now (excited voice) I’m actually coaching Marta. I’m soooo proud of that. I think if you ask me this question in a couple of years my answer will be Marta. The best captain? Christie Rampone, both on and off the field she was the best. The best goalkeeper? Elisabeth Leidinge but also Hope Solo.