Euro 2022: Iceland’s Sara Bjork Gunnarsdottir on being a mother and a professional footballer

Lyon midfielder Sara Bjork Gunnarsdottir, with her husband Arni and son Ragnar, returned to play for Iceland four months after giving birth.

Soccer-playing mothers will feature at this summer’s European Championship like never before, with enough mothers in every team to field their own first XI and a handful of substitutes.

Iceland’s lineup includes the most mothers, with five in total. That explains why, during their last competitive meeting for the World Cup qualifiers in April, the conversation at one table turned to babies.

“I remember we had about six [players] sitting over coffee and just talking about our childbirth experiences,” the team’s newest mother, midfielder Sara Bjork Gunnarsdottir, tells BBC Sport.

Having given birth to her son in November and with her sights set on a return in time for the European Championship, the 31-year-old record holder for caps now looks back on that chat as an important one.

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

“We all went through our own experience, but knowing that they did it was inspiring for me and still is, and it should be inspiring for all other women.”

Of the seven mothers aspiring to make Iceland coach Thorsteinn Halldorsson’s European Championship squad, West Ham midfielder Dagny Brynjarsdottir, veteran defender Sif Atladottir, goalkeeper Sandra Sigurdardottir and Valur teammate Elisa Vidarsdottir They made the cut.

Like Gunnarsdottir, who had finished his season with minutes under his belt for club and national team, closing the campaign with Lyon as champions of the Champions League and the French league.

For Brynjarsdottir, who describes her comeback since the birth of her son Brynjar in 2018 as “the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” it was a comeback that two-time Icelandic Sportswoman of the Year Gunnarsdottir had to fight to make happen.

First there were months of physical training with a specialist trainer in Iceland to keep fit during her pregnancy; then similarly directed exercises in Lyon while working his way back.

“I had doubts,” admits Gunnarsdottir. “It’s the first time I’ve gotten pregnant and I don’t know my body that way. I had the anterior cruciate ligament done and another injury, you know the steps, how you’re going to feel, but not with the pregnancy. know how your body is going to react.

In March, he was fit enough to get back on the pitch for 45 minutes at Dijon.

“I remember in the middle of the game I said to myself ‘it feels so good,'” she recalls.

However, life away from the grass was testing. Her husband, midfielder Arni Vilhjalmsson, played 250 miles away for French Ligue 2 side Rodez and was only able to return a couple of days a week.

A nanny and visiting family helped, but Gunnarsdottir was often home alone, sleeping for only a few hours and sometimes forgetting to eat as she focused all her attention on her baby Ragnar.

“I’ll be honest, I hit a wall maybe three or four times when I would just fall apart because I was mentally and physically exhausted,” she says.

“So, at the same time, I was at my happiest. It’s an emotional roller coaster.

“But I am very proud of that moment because I worked very hard to get back to the shape I am in and show others that you can be a professional soccer player and a mother at the same time.”

“It’s hard, the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but at the same time I love it, it’s the most amazing feeling in the world.”

“I’m stressed about the European Championship”

In 2017, an employment report by the global players’ union Fifpro found that only 2% of female players were mothers and many women quit due to a lack of maternity policies to support them.

Since last year, The new FIFA rules have established terms around paid maternity leave, with the right to return after pregnancy, to breastfeed and to have access to independent medical advice.

Fifpro sees it as a first step. Gunnarsdottir’s midfield partner at the last two European Championships, 30-year-old Brynjarsdottir believes proper support is key to a successful comeback after pregnancy.

“You have to have the right support system,” he tells BBC Sport. And a club that wants to support you, because when you bring a mother to a team, you’re not just bringing a football player, you’re bringing a family.

“You have to realize that they are not thinking about football all the time, they have to balance other things and sometimes it is difficult.”

Dagny Brynjarsdottir with her son Brynjar
West Ham midfielder Dagny Brynjarsdottir had her son Brynjar in June 2018

Brynjarsdottir, 30, made her comeback at Portland Thorns in the US Women’s National Soccer League and in 2021 joined West Ham of the Women’s Super League. She praises both clubs.

Portland paid her husband Omar to travel with her to away games while their son was a baby. West Ham allow him to take four-year-old Brynjar to training if she ever needs him.

However, the Euro will present a different challenge for the Icelandic centurion, because the players only have their children in the camp if they are less than a year old.

The federation says there is no general rule and that they try to help their mothers on an individual basis to feel comfortable with their arrangements at the camp.

Earlier this month, head coach Halldorsson changed the times of a home camp so his team could spend as much time as possible with their families ahead of the European Championship.

But with a 12-day pre-camp in Germany and Poland before the tournament begins, Brynjarsdottir knows this could be the longest she’s ever been apart from her son.

“To be honest, I’m a bit stressed about the European Championship because we’ll be out for a while,” she says. “I feel like we’re still pretty close, the two of us. It’s hard when I know my son wants to be with me and he can’t be.”

“Mentally, you just have to stay focused and whenever you can get out of the hotel, use that time to see family.”

Demi Stokes playing for England against Belgium
English defender’s fiancee Demi Stokes gave birth to their son in May

Policies vary by teams. Belgian Lenie Onzia, Dutch Sherida Spitse and Stefanie van Der Gragt and English Demi Stokes can see their respective children on family days.

Sweden’s Lina Hurtig, Hedvig Lindahl and Elin Rubensson can watch their children in their spare time, their FA offering a “family trip” for relatives to follow the team and live together.

The German Almuth Schult can have her partner and children with her. Brynjarsdottir’s baby may join her in what will be her fourth European Championship, with the federation paying for a “support person” at all times.

Brynjarsdottir believes that all the mothers on her team will support each other on the “difficult days” when they miss their children, but she hopes that changes can be made to accommodate them in the future.

“Hopefully we can do better contracts in the fall that are better suited to mothers,” she says. “I know some moms like when they go to camp to take some time for themselves.

“But I would like to take it with me and I feel like it should be up to me.

“It probably won’t be that way as long as he’s still playing, but hopefully for the younger generation, it will be easier for the moms that will be here later on.”

Between them, the Icelandic mothers boast more than 400 caps, but Gunnarsdottir hopes they will bring more than playing experience to the European Championship table.

“We as players are pretty selfish: It’s about your career and your training, diet, sleep,” she says. “But now it’s different, you prioritize your baby.

“I think that gives a good dynamic to the team because I myself feel more sympathy for my teammates and others, it’s hard to describe it, but I would like to hope that it gives something to the team.”

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