A golden age of football of sorts came to an end August 20 when Sweden and Umeå IK star Hanna Ljungberg announced her retirement.
by Chipp Reid
The 30-year-old striker accomplished more than any female soccer player from Sweden, winning seven Swedish titles, two European crowns while setting single-season and career scoring records for both her club and national team. In the end, however, the one opponent Ljungberg could not defeat was time. A series of injuries, including major surgery to replace the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee, combined to force Ljungberg from the sport she came to epitomize.
“I didn’t want to make this decision but I had to make it,” Ljungberg said. “When I had surgery I knew I didn’t have so much left in my ACL and I didn’t want to tear the ACL again. I felt it was just not worth the risk.”
Ljungberg re-injured her right knee July 5 in a match against Sunnanå. Although she admitted she wanted to keep playing at least until the end of the 2009 season, she realized the cost could well outweigh any new accomplishment.
“To be honest, I had been thinking about ending my career but I thought as long as my knee was working OK, I would keep playing,” she said. “I really wanted to finish this season because it was going to be my last no matter what. The decision to end was hard, but in the end it was the right thing to do.”
Ljungberg, playing in a new role as a midfielder, helped lead Umeå to first place in the Damallsvenskan. She said the fact UIK appears headed toward an eighth Swedish championship despite losing star players such as Frida Östberg and FIFA World Player of the Year Marta made leaving the field somewhat easier.
“I think we've managed to find new players with that same sense of winning as our old players,” she said. “Of course we have a lot of good coaches, but it’s really all about finding the right players.”
Coaching the offense While she will no longer terrorize opposing defenses, Ljungberg isn’t finished with football, at least not yet. Ten days after retiring as a player, Ljungberg returned to Umeå as an assistant coach.
“I want to be a part of helping the team win,” she said. “What made my decision [to retire] so hard was that we have two months of the season left and I want to be a part of that. Now, I have that chance.”
Ljungberg is to work with the offensive players, trying to impart to youngsters such as Madeleine Edlund and Sofia Jacobsson the lessons she learned during her 14-year playing career.
“I’m not the head coach. I’m just there to help the offensive players,” she said. “It is very different because one week I was practicing with them and now I am teaching them, but it’s good. I know for me, I always got a lot of help from people on the side(lines) who watched me.”
Top player for a long time Ever since Ljungberg made her debut as a 17 year old in 1997, she has been on the fast track to stardom. She played 130 games in the Blue and Yellow jersey of Sweden, scoring a record 72 goals. She notched 196 goals in 226 career games for Umeå, leading the northern Swedish team to seven Swedish titles.
She enjoyed her best season in 2002, scoring a record 39 goals in the Damallsvenskan while leading Sweden back to the finals of the FIFA Women’s World Cup. She won the Diamond Ball – the top prize for Swedish women’s football players – in 2002 and in 2003 was third in voting for the FIFA Women’s Player of the Year award.
However, it was her style of play on the field and her manner off it that won over fans and the media.
“Words are not enough to describe what Hanna Ljungberg has meant for Umeå IK's women's football,” said Umeå club director Britta Åkerlund. “She is not only unique as a footballer but also a wonderful, clever and sociable person with a huge loyalty to the club. Now Hanna has an opportunity to do other things in life and I am absolutely convinced that what Hanna than undertake and so she will succeed very well.”
International limelight Ljungberg gained international stardom when she led Sweden to the finals of the 2001 European Championship and the 2003 FIFA Women’s World Cup. American fans especially fell in love with her speed and attacking play. When Sweden lost to Germany in overtime in the final at the Hope Depot Center in Carson, Calif., fans gave Ljungberg a nearly three-minute standing ovation.
“That’s something I will always remember,” she said. “I think what I will miss the most, though, is just the social aspect of football, being with my friends.”
'Glorious future' Ljungberg said she plans to concentrate on coaching with UIK until the season ends, then wants to take some time to decide just what she wants to do. Ljungberg is close to earning her degree in physical therapy, although she said for right now, she prefers to keep her options open.
“I’m not really sure what I will do,” she said. “I want to find something that I will enjoy doing. It may not be the fist job I get. I enjoyed playing football but now it’s time to move on. We’ll see what comes next.”
One thing she said she definitely would do is something she hasn’t been able to do for a long time.
“I want to go away for a weekend and just relax,” she said. “When you play football, you really can’t get away. It’s always football. Now, I can relax and I would like to get away for a weekend and just have fun.”
Hanna Ljungberg struggles to stand after re-injuring her knee in a Damallsvenskan match against Sunnanå. Bildbyrån photo