The Olympic road started and ended in Rio. Sweden began their Women’s Olympic Football Tournament campaign at the Olympic Stadium in Rio de Janeiro on 3 August with a 1-0 win against South Africa, before a crushing 5-1 defeat to Brazil in the same stadium which would have been a final destination for most teams. Instead, the Swedes stepped on the accelerator and powered through to the final, where they faced an irrepressible Germany, who defeated them 2-1 to clinch gold.
You would expect Pia Sundhage, after two consecutive gold medals with the USA, to be disconsolate when speaking to FIFA.com after the defeat but, for her, the silver medal represented a positive step on a longer journey with this Sweden team.
“I’m very proud of the way we played against Germany,” Sundhage said. “We won the silver medal, we didn’t lose a gold medal. The road we have taken since the very first game against South Africa until now and the performance in the final means that I’m very proud of the players.”
Sundhage has been on this particular voyage with the Swedish team since September 2012 after five years with the USA. How did the silver, with her own country, compare to her two consecutive golds with the Stars and Stripes?
“You had a USA team [in 2008 and 2012 under Sundhage] that everybody expected to win gold,” Sundhage said. “Not many people expected us to reach the final and I think that the journey to get here has been very exciting. It’s the same kind of happiness actually. I think that this team, it could be even better.”
One of the vital cogs in Sweden’s engine that has driven them to the final is Stina Blackstenius, and she is one player who Sundhage refers to when she says the future looks bright for the Swedes. Her goal stunned the USA in the quarter-final, and her strike at the Maracana gave hope to Sundhage’s side as they pushed for an equaliser, ultimately in vain.
In the future she will probably be a very important player for Sweden.
“It has been far above my expectations,” Blackstenius told FIFA.com. “The way I’ve played and scored two goals at the Olympics. Every game I play gives me great experience to become the best in the world eventually. It has been a great experience for the young players to compete at Rio 2016. It’s great for us to take this back home and it’s good for women’s football in the country as well.”
The next step
Her coach was effusive in her praise for the 20-year-old Linkopings forward who will likely compete at the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup in Papua New Guinea later this year. Sundhage thinks Blackstenius has a long trip to the top ahead of her.
“It’s been a great tournament for her. It will take time for her to be a leading player for Sweden,” Sundhage said. “A young player like her, pretty much in her first year in the full national team, her experience will be up and down of course. In the future she will probably be a very important player for Sweden.”
The journey around Brazil has seen the fans come out in their droves to support another team in yellow, with the Swedes receiving a positive backing – save for the game against the hosts themselves – wherever they have gone in Brazil, from Brasilia to Rio.
“We felt great support from the Brazilian fans,” Blackstenius smiled. “We want to thank them very much for this support, they’ve been fantastic.”
Only time will tell what the next stop on the road will be for Sundhage, Blackstenius and Sweden. One thing is for sure, if the next generation of Swedish talent reach Tokyo in 2020, they will certainly be looking to navigate their way to gold.