Tuesday 17 May 2022, 17:00

Seger: I’m so proud of how I handled Olympic heartbreak

  • Caroline Seger missed a gold medal-winning penalty in last year’s Olympic final

  • Sweden captain has since bounced back on the field - and from the spot

  • The 229-times-capped midfielder speaks to FIFA+ about heartbreak and redemption

Some blows are so crushing that they can floor even the toughest and most legendary of fighters.

On 6 August last year, many of us feared that we’d witnessed just such a knockout inflicted on an icon of the women’s game.

The proverbial punch came in the shape of a wayward penalty that, had it been a foot or so lower, would have secured Sweden’s first global title and represented the crowning moment of Caroline Seger’s record-breaking career. When the ball flew over, and Olympic gold went instead to Canada, it seemed too much to ask that this 36-year-old pick herself up off the canvas for another shot at international glory.

But Seger’s darkest moment has led, arguably, to her finest hour. That might seem an overstatement given that she is a two-time Olympic silver medalist, winner of two FIFA Women’s World Cup™ bronzes, the most capped European player in history and a player who, since Tokyo 2020, has ‘only’ won the Algarve Cup.

However, when Sweden, at 1-0 down to Italy, won a penalty in the closing stages of that tournament’s final – Seger’s first since the Olympics – there were audible murmurs and gasps when the veteran midfielder stepped forward to take it. Dispatching the kick emphatically, then slotting home the first penalty of a flawless, title-winning shootout, seemed to require near-superhuman levels of courage, coolness and mental clarity.

It threw up questions too. How did she manage it? What impact did it have? And why had she even put herself through that tension-filled ordeal in the first place?

Seger, who has continued to take spot-kicks for both club and country, answered all these questions and more as she chatted openly with FIFA about the highs and lows of the past nine months.

Caroline Seger of Sweden applauds.

FIFA+: The last time we met you was at the Olympics. Everything since – winning the Algarve Cup, qualifying for the World Cup, top of the league with Rosengard – looks to have been positive. Are you happy? Caroline Seger: I am. There’s no getting away from the fact that the Olympics ended for me in the worst possible way. But I tried to keep a positive mindset and, above all, keep looking forward. The fact there was a lot of stuff happening in the months afterwards definitely helped – it made it easier to re-focus and move forward. The national team is still developing and I have a real feeling that the future is very bright and that this team can go even higher than we did in Japan. I’m just happy that I’m still able to play my part.

It was great to see that, first, you decided to play on for Sweden after what happened in Japan, and then that you felt able to step up to take some really big penalties for the team – in World Cup qualifying, then in the Algarve Cup. Did you hesitate at all in either respect? Honestly, not really. I never went into the Olympics with the mindset that it was going to be my last tournament, no matter how it went. I still feel really good, my motivation is high and I love playing in this Sweden team, so quitting was never a question for me. As for the penalties, I think it’s important as an athlete and person to face whatever comes at you. I felt that I could show young girls – and boys – that that you’re not going to be a superhero, that sometimes you’ll miss, but that you just need to step up again. It was also important for my head to go through it and not shy away from that responsibility because penalties are a big part of football, and a part of the job.

Penalty by Caroline Seger Sweden to 1 1, in goal Laura Giuliani goalkeeper Italy , 23 02 2022, Lagos, Football, Women, Algarve Cup, Sweden Italy.

Penalties are such a mental challenge at the best of times though. When you’re stepping up in that Algarve Cup final, do you just try to clear your head of what happened in the Olympic final and focus simply on the mechanics of striking the ball? It's an interesting one. In the Olympics, there were so many things going through my head and the one thought I remember so clearly was, ‘Now I can actually win something for Sweden and do something that no-one else has done’. It was just such a big moment and, because it was so big, I don’t think that I was as clear in my head and focused on the basics of the penalty itself. I don’t know whether the run-up was wrong, the shooting action or if it was just all the emotions inside me, but I can tell you that I replay that situation all the time and see how I missed. So now whenever I take a penalty, I have that in my mind and just repeat to myself, ‘Do not do it that way again’. You live and learn in life, and unfortunately I had to learn the hard way. I’m just glad that I’ve been able to move forward.

Do you feel that scoring those penalties in the Algarve Cup final – along with the others you’ve scored for Rosengard and Sweden over recent months – have allowed you to put the Olympics behind you? I don’t think I can ever leave it behind completely because it will always be there. And when I speak to people or do interviews, it comes up a lot! (laughs) I totally understand that. I also see it in a positive way because I’ve been through a lot in my career but never something that hard mentally. And I’m so proud of myself that I continued. Every time I go up to that penalty spot now, I continue to believe and continue to do it again. I don’t want to say I’d be a coward if I hadn’t done it that way because everyone handles these things differently. But I do feel that I’ve proved something to myself by continuing to step out there and take those penalties.

Despite how it ended, are you able to take some positives and pride from the Olympics now given how well, individually and as a team, you played in Japan? I am very proud of what we did but, at the same time, it will always hurt because of just how close we were. Coming from Sweden, it’s not like the US or Germany where you lose in one final but you know there are always some more coming along. I knew how much it had taken us to get there, and how special it could have been. But there’s no doubt that the way we played was fantastic and a big step forward even on 2019 (when Sweden performed well en route to finishing third at the FIFA Women's World Cup). If we can keep doing the same things and believe in ourselves, there’s more to come from this team.

When I spoke to your coach, Peter Gerhardsson, he made a point of saying that he doesn’t ask you to commit to playing on to the next tournament, or for the next two or three years – just the next match. Has that been important to you, and have you enjoyed your football since the Olympics? Ever since Peter and Magnus [Wikman, Gerhardsson’s assistant] took over, I’ve loved playing for the national team. I enjoyed it before but now it’s better than ever because we’re playing real football, having the ball more, going forward, using the spaces. It’s a real pleasure – a joy. I don’t know how long it will continue for and it's right to take it step by step, but right now I still really love it.

Given the football you’re playing, and what we’re seeing from the likes of Spain, France, England and Germany right now, it’s shaping up to a fantastic EURO, isn’t it? Definitely. I honestly think this could be the hardest tournament we ever played because, in technique, tactics and physically, every women’s team is now developing so fast. I think it’s going to be a fantastic tournament to watch and play in, and my expectation is that the tempo – which was already high and really good at the 2019 World Cup – will reach another level in England. Whoever wins will need to fight really hard for it.

Caroline Seger of Sweden.

After playing the Olympics in front of empty stadiums, you must also be looking forward to another tournament – like France – with fans in big numbers? Very much so because, for me, that’s what makes these big tournaments special. It’s the fans who turn it into a party. I’ve also been to many tournaments earlier in my career when fans were allowed, but not many showed up. So I really appreciate it these days, seeing the crowds at these matches and attendance records being broken all over Europe. It’s fantastic. It makes me quite sentimental about the bumpy journey we’ve been on.

The Women’s World Cup isn’t too far away either. Can we hope to see you there, or is that still a ‘wait and see’ situation? At my age (Seger turned 37 in March), I think it has to be wait and see. As long as I feel that I can compete with the best, play at a good level and give something back to the team, I’d love to play on. But I never want to be picked – and I know Peter would never do it anyway – because of my history. Right now, I take it one step at a time and, for me, the EURO is that next step. If we win gold, who knows – it might be my final destination.

Caroline Seger poses with her medal during the bronze celebrations of the Swedish women s national team, Nationalteam after the FIFA Women s World Cup on July 8, 2019 in Gothenburg.