Author: Asif Burhan
Currently pregnant and expecting her first child this winter, Iceland women’s national soccer team captain Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir has a dream. “I picture myself playing in England (at the UEFA Women’s Euro in 2022) and after the game getting my baby in my arms with all the Icelandic fans in the stands. My mind is there, we will see if my body follows”.
In April, Gunnarsdóttir, currently under contract at French side Olympique Lyonnais until June 2022, announced that she and her husband were expecting their first child and were returning to stay with her relatives in Iceland to carry her pregnancy to term. Last month, her sponsors PUMA revealed that in collaboration with media company Copa 90 they would be releasing a series of monthly editorial pieces charting Gunnarsdóttir’s pregnancy and comeback to play once again at the highest level culminating in a feature-length documentary to be shown next summer.
Directed by Lawrence Tallis and Hannah Calverley, the documentary promises to offer “unprecedented, never-before-seen access into the life of a professional female athlete as she faces the challenge of returning to elite level sport after giving birth”. It will document her training schedule and feature interviews with her family and team-mates and guidance from professional experts monitoring her progress and recovery post-pregnancy.
Speaking to me last month, Gunnarsdóttir revealed exactly why pregnancy was so demanding compared to anything she has encountered before. “Physically, it’s obviously been a challenge. I’ve always been in shape, I’ve always been in control of my body, how I train and how I rest, how I eat. Now, it’s just so much more than me. I have to take care of the baby growing inside of me. It’s been challenging trying to hold back with the training. There’s changes in my body that I have no control of. That’s maybe the most difficult one because I always had good control of my body and now I don’t”.
“Mentally, I’m used to being around a team, competing with my club, with my national team. You feel a little bit isolated, like it’s a really long injury, like you are out and doing your recovery alone. It takes time to adapt to that. Mentally, it’s just up and down. Every day’s a little bit different. Obviously I miss football all the time, and I miss being around the team, just to train and have that feeling when I train well or have a good match. Looking forward to going to the locker room and having a laugh with the girls. Like I said, mentally, it’s a big shift”.
Gunnarsdóttir told me, “I decided to make the documentary because it’s something that should be visible. To show that you can have a baby and still play at the highest level and have a career. I thought it was perfect for me to make an example for other women. Today, you can see in many sports that women are coming back after pregnancy. They are showing that they are still at the highest level. I think it could have been something that was done earlier. It’s important to have those role models, to have the examples to show that it’s possible”.
Instances of leading women’s soccer players having children during their careers remain relatively rare. The majority of players are still employed on short-term contracts which would expire by the time they return from having a baby creating a lack of job security. Gunnarsdóttir reveals to me that having children during their career is not something female players tend to be open about. “Many women or athletes, they are terrified to have a kid on top of their career. It’s scary, you don’t know if you are sacrificing your career. You don’t have so many examples or role models to show you that it’s possible. Still, I think women are afraid to commit themselves to have a family. A few years ago, it was not a discussion that women should have a family during their career”.
“It’s something you speak about obviously, You speak about family and getting pregnant with other team-mates. It’s something that hasn’t been talked about or it’s a little bit taboo in the women’s sports world because I think we are only focusing on our career. We haven’t had any rights or we haven’t been allowed to really consider having a baby during our career. Most often it’s like “yeah, I want to have a baby and family after our career”. It’s 2021, and it’s really weird that it’s not as open as it should be. It should be a normal thing. We’re trying to do that now with this documentary. To demonstrate that it’s a possibility and an opportunity that we can deal with. It’s a challenge, but it’s possible”.
Gunnarsdóttir’s employers, Olympique Lyonnais, stated as soon as she announced she was pregnant in April 2021 that they would support her and help her come back. A statement that other former national team-mates never received on previous occasions. Icelandic goalkeeper Gudbjorg Gunnarsdóttir, kept her IVF treatment secret from her team-mates for three years, once feigning an injury to cover up the physical impact a procedure has having on her. After becoming pregnant, her girlfriend Mia Jalkerud was not given a new contract by their mutual Swedish club side after taking maternity leave, forcing both of them to seek new employment.
Gunnarsdóttir told me, “I saw on social media, she didn’t get the support she needed with the club over her pregnancy. That’s really sad because it’s a package, you have to make it work. There has to be a lot of compromise from the club with the loss of a player. Are the clubs doing everything in their power to support the player so she is able to focus 100% on her sport? So she can manage to do that as well as raising the baby. You need all the support you can get. Unfortunately, from what I read, the club didn’t give her that, so she needed to leave”.
Last October, the world governing body FIFA proposed a number of changes to player contracts seeking to protect women who become pregnant such as 14-week mandatory maternity leave paid at a minimum of two-thirds of their contracted salary and requiring that clubs reintegrate female players and provide adequate medical and physical support. “I think it’s a step in the right direction” said Gunnarsdóttir. “It should have been something that was done earlier. It’s new to everyone. It’s going to take some time for the clubs to adapt to these changes. What they have to consider is what is it that the players need around their baby. It’s travelling, with the training, with the babysitting. It’s a big package that needs to be considered”.
Another step forward could be the greater recent investment in the women’s game which is creating more wealth for the clubs and the subsequent offer of longer playing contracts. “When you have a longer contact and you are interested in having a family also, then it’s stability” says Gunnarsdóttir. “It gives you security in a way and demonstrates that the club are willing to support that. It gives you time also, you can train (during your pregnancy) for up to two to four months, then have your baby. Coming back, knowing you have two or three years left on your contract, you have the opportunity to show that you can play and have a family at the same time”.
Twice voted Icelandic Sportsperson of the Year, with 136 international appearances, Gunnarsdóttir is her country’s most capped player representing them in all three previous European Championships tournaments they have competed in. To return to competitive action in time for a fourth finals in England next July is a burning ambition for her.
“Obviously I would love to come back and play in the Euros. My mind takes me places where I can really dream. Often, I’m able to reach that. You never know how your body’s going to react and how you’re going to feel. I really hope my body will also take me there. You never know. I think it’s realistic, if I think about it. If everything goes well, I’m able to compete at the Euros. If not, I know I will try everything in my power to make it work. I just have to wait and see if my body works with me”.
“Yeah, I think it would be a very special one, a special comeback. I overcame a big injury when I was younger but I think this one will be something that is very special, having a baby and going into all these challenges. Trying to play at the highest level and having a really young kid or a baby, who I have to put in first place. It will be really challenging but it will be really sweet if everything works out – if not, I tried everything in my power to make it work”.