Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir: The mother leading Iceland at the Euros


Towards the end of her 11 minute, 51 second documentary is when Iceland women’s national team captain, Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir says the above line. The documentary was produced by Puma in partnership with Copa 90 and follows her journey from training during her pregnancy to making a return to professional football after.

“I want to try to not sacrifice my career just to have a family,” she says, the first line in her documentary.

“I want to show people that I can do both. I’m Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir. I’m having a baby in November and in June I want to play for my country in the Euros.”

Cut to Sunday, July 10. The Manchester City Academy ground hosts Iceland’s first match of Euro 2022. The sight of Björk singing the national anthem with her teammates, wearing the captain’s armband is one for Viking literature.

The 31-year old’s journey over the last year or so has been one of the biggest stories in the build-up to the Women’s Euro 2022. A journey one can feel part of via her documentary, Do Both, with inside access to Bjork’s training during and after her pregnancy, her thoughts, and the thoughts of her family, friends and colleagues.

“If somebody is going to do it, it’s going to be her because she is so competitive and focused,” says Sara’s brother, Örn Ingi Gunnarsson.

“She was a lot more competitive than me, I’m two years older and I was also a little bit bigger but she never backed down you know.”

The competitiveness hasn’t gone down any bit as Árni Vilhjálmsson, Sara’s boyfriend and a professional footballer himself, tells in the film.

“I am worried she will come back too soon…. like putting some statement that you can be back in a month,” he says.

Björk had planned on leaving for Lyon by January 2022, only two months after her due date, so that she could join her club for the second half of the season and get back in the hang of things well ahead of the Euros in the summer.

Her former national teammates, who had undergone a similar journey and had trained during their pregnancies, recommended Mark Johnson for the same.

“The better shape she’s going to give birth in, the faster she can recover,” says Johnson on film.

“But you don’t know. That’s the thing. It’s all unknown what’s going to happen during birth and how her body will recover after birth. It’s just that everybody’s different.”

Björk also talks about the fact that after a certain time (20-21 weeks) her body just couldn’t sync in with the determination she had in her mind to train. Even the doctor mentioned to her that it’s only going to get worse for her in terms of training.

“I was like 20 weeks, I can’t stop training now because I was walking like this…I couldn’t walk.”

The training routine naturally got lighter and frustration began to creep in for the 31-year-old, who wasn’t feeling as fresh as she wanted to. Normalcy for Björk would take some time to return after she gave birth to her son, Ragnar, on November 16, 2021.

“In the beginning, I couldn’t even pass a long ball because there was so much pressure on the groin and the pelvic,” she said while talking about her return to training in January.

“But then next training it got better and better and it actually amazes me how quickly my body has adapted.”

The Iceland international made her return for Lyon on the pitch with a 45-minute outing in March against Dijon. It would take less than a month for her to return in the blue jersey as Iceland played Belarus and Czech Republic in the 2023 World Cup qualifiers.

Björk isn’t the only mother who made it to the national squad for the summer. In fact, Iceland has more mothers than any other team at the Euros (five), sharing more than 400 international caps between them. Dagny Brynjarsdottir, Sif Atladottir, Sandra Sigurdardottir and Elisa Vidarsdottir also made it to Thorsteinn Halldorsson’s final list for England.

In a recent interview with BBC, Björk mentioned how conversations with her colleagues who returned to professional football after giving birth helped her.

“When you have role models playing and at a good level, having a baby and coming back, still on the national team, that did a lot for me,” she said.

“We all go through our own experience, but to know they did it, it was inspiring for me and it still is, and it should be inspiring for all other women.” Björk’s former national teammate Margrét Lára Viðarsdóttir, who played in 124 games for the senior team scoring 79 goals, termed the Iceland captain as a role model.

“She will show everyone that this is possible. Girls are playing soccer for a longer period up to thirty-five, six years old on the highest level. We want to do both. You don’t have to choose.”

Can every mother ‘do both’?

In 2017, world football players’ union, FIFPRO revealed that in a scary statistic, only two percent of active international players were mothers and that the major reason for most quitting the game was a lack of maternity policies to support them and their families.

Things have certainly changed for the better since FIFA introduced the laws regarding maternity leaves in 2020. The rules mean that clubs pay at least two-thirds of the players’ salary, and reintegrate them upon their return to football.

Support from Lyon was on offer as soon as Björk first announced her pregnancy in April last year. The club made a public statement, expressing that they wanted to “ensure her return to the club occurs in the best possible conditions.”

Many before weren’t offered the same. Former Iceland international, Gudbjorg Gunnarsdóttir and her girlfriend Mia Jalkerud were asked by the Swedish club Djurgårdens IF Fotboll to look for opportunities elsewhere after Jalkerud took maternity leave during her pregnancy. Gudbjorg had also explained why she had kept three years of IVF a secret from her coach and teammates, owing to the inherent stigma in the game of mothers not being good players.

“I felt like the club thinks you’re not going to put football number one,” she had told BBC World Service in an interview back in 2020.

“Of course, football is number two, and I think it’s so unfair because if you look at men’s football, it’s a positive thing if a male football player has children because then they look at him as a family man. It’s only negative for women because you’re not playing and then you have to take care of the kids, you gain weight, they don’t know about your form. If you come back really early, you get questioned, ‘are you a good mum?’.”

Björk is hopeful that her journey, a well-documented one, will inspire to act as a ‘universal truth’ for women and mothers. She addressed her thoughts in a press release by Puma.

“I know not everyone has been able to tread the same path, and I hope the documentary can act as a universal truth that, as women and mothers, you do not have to choose between having a family and your career. You can do both.”

One can’t argue with the Iceland captain who’s currently leading her country at the Women’s Euro 2022.

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