By Philip O’Connor
STOCKHOLM (Reuters) – With the majority of the 24 teams at the Women’s World Cup coached by men, the game needs to embrace the wealth of experience that female soccer coaches have to offer, former United States and Sweden coach Pia Sundhage told Reuters.
Only nine teams at next month’s World Cup in France will have female coaches and Sundhage said this is limiting the development of the women’s game and opportunities for women in general.
“Every woman that I have met in football has been at a very high level as a player, playing at the World Cup, the Euros and the Olympics, and they have been involved for a long time,” she said in an interview ahead of the finals starting on June 7.
“Naturally, it’s an advantage if we have more women than we have at the moment, as it’s a job. If you’re a player, your chance to become a coach increases if there are more jobs.
“But if we choose what we have always chosen, which is very often men, then you see past that woman. And what happens then is you miss out on a lot of knowledge and competence.”
Sundhage scored 71 goals in 146 games for Sweden, moving on to coaching club sides in her homeland and America before accepting a role as an assistant with the Chinese national side, which in turn led to the head coaching job with the U.S.
The 59-year-old former striker coached the American women to Olympic gold in 2008 and 2012 and a runners-up spot at the 2011 World Cup before taking over her native Sweden and winning Olympic silver in 2016.
Despite her success, Sundhage said she was never approached by a men’s team.
“All of the places I’ve been, I’ve been asked – I’ve never had an offer from men’s football, and I haven’t really looked for one either. I’ve had great jobs where I have always been asked to take the next step,” she said.
Sundhage is hoping 2019 will be the year women’s football finally breaks into the mainstream, but she remains slightly sceptical.
“I’ve been part of so many breakthroughs. The football is getting better and better and the crowds are getting bigger, but it takes time to filter down to club level and to media and fans following it on a daily basis,” she said.
Now working with Sweden’s under-17 team, Sundhage is a sought-after speaker on the subject of leadership. She said there was no difference between the way men and women coach the game, and that the important factor was diversity.
“I think everyone would say that we should have the best person available in every position, and who is the best person available? I believe in differences and that means that some countries and clubs will have men and some will have women,” she said.
Sundhage pointed to the difficulties women have in being considered for roles in football as a barrier that needs to be removed.
“If you’ve been on the men’s side as a coach and you haven’t seen a women’s game, you can be offered a job at a club team here in Sweden, for instance – the same thing doesn’t happen the other way round,” she said.
“If you are an experienced female player and leader and you haven’t worked in women’s football, you still have to demonstrate that you can do this (job).
“I don’t think we have any women who have had responsibility for a men’s elite team, to my knowledge,” she said.
(Reporting by Philip O’Connor; Editing by Ken Ferris)