At 15, Susanne Augustesen became world champion in Mexico, at 18 she moved to Italy, scored 600 goals and dictated the conditions to the clubs. She says: «Italy was the place for women’s football. In addition, the food, good wine – I didn’t miss Denmark.”
A month ago, Susanne Augustesen shook her head in resignation while looking out at the small lake in downtown Copenhagen. The Danish media write of a “milestone”: The women’s national team’s preparation game for the European Championship against Brazil is historic – not only because more than 20,000 spectators came, but because the women played for the first time in the Parken National Stadium in Copenhagen.
The mood is euphoric, reflecting the enthusiasm that the women’s team sparks. But Augustesen is angry. ‘It’s just not true. We played at Parken back in 1971, in a friendly against Italy. But no one knows that anymore.”
The 66-year-old has to live with the fact that much of her spectacular life as a footballer has simply been forgotten. Her name means very little in Denmark – despite one of the most amazing careers. She won the Italian championship eight times, the cup twice, and with over 600 goals she was top scorer eight times. Figures like this outshine even the big names in Danish football, be it Michael Laudrup, Christian Poulsen or Peter and Kasper Schmeichel.
Thanks to Augustesen, Denmark becomes world champion in 1971 – but only unofficially
But what is even more amazing is that hardly anyone knows that Augustesen became world champion with the Danish national team. The problem with that 1971 World Cup title is the same as with the first international in Parken: both were unofficial. The Danish Football Association later integrated the women, and it was still 20 years before the first women’s World Cup, organized by the world governing body Fifa. The greatest triumphs of Danish women footballers therefore do not appear in any official list. “One simply forgets one’s own history,” says Augustesen.
She was the youngest Dane at the 1971 World Cup in Mexico, only 15. Nevertheless, she was one of the best, at least in front of goal, technically strong and assertive. “I was energetic and fast, had played with boys since I was five, on the street, in the school team and in the club,” says Augustesen. She didn’t care that she was sometimes told that football was bad for the female body. Her parents told her: “Do whatever you want” – and she quickly noticed her talent. Among other things, she impressed the boys with her hard shot from the outside – and a good nose for goal: “I fought until the ball was in.”
The 15-year-old, traveling abroad for the first time, was crucial for the world title. Augustesen scored a hat-trick against the hosts in the final – guided by the Swiss Jean-Pierre Minarich – to win 3-0. It was also a game to remember because, a year after the Men’s World Cup, there was a lot of enthusiasm for football in Mexico. 112,500 spectators attended the women’s final – significantly more than in April this year when Barcelona met Wolfsburg at the Camp Nou in the Champions League and mobilized 91,648 spectators. This number of spectators is the official record for women’s football.
Augustesen recalls that she only looked briefly at the overwhelming crowd of spectators in the World Cup final, “then the focus was only on the game”. The Danes won overwhelmingly. After the World Cup, several Italian clubs contacted the hat-trick shooter, offering wages, board and lodging, flights during the holidays and paid training in Rome on top of that. But the parents remained firm: first the school leaving certificate in Holbaek.
The women’s teams from Barcelona and Wolfsburg mobilize more than 90,000 spectators.
Augustesen becomes a star in Italy – and enjoys enormous freedom
At 18, however, they let their daughter go. The teenager with no professional training knew that the supposedly conservative Italy was a dream destination, the foreign players were already professionals, and up to 10,000 spectators came to the women’s championship games. Both would have been unthinkable in Denmark. And Augustesen didn’t just turn pro, she became a star.
She laid the foundation for this as a child, when she developed a versatile feel for the ball. She not only played football, but also ice hockey, badminton and handball. Actually, her handball was more important than soccer. She was one of Denmark’s elite juniors and was called up to the national team for the 1974 World Handball Championship. But she canceled with a heavy heart – Italy and Calcio intervened.
“Susy”, as she was called, played for a total of 21 years in nine clubs in Italy, including Lazio, Cagliari, Modena and Bologna. The frequent changes show that she was a sought-after player. “I had good arguments with my many goals and had top scorer level.” Augustesen says this without boasting, she simply explains how her career unfolded.
The salaries were not high, but she was able to make a living from it and had freedoms that would be unthinkable today. In 1978 she chose a permanent place of residence in northern Italy, in the lovely provincial town of Conegliano. The clubs that hired her, whether from Rome or southern Italy, “had to hire me as a freelancer,” she says with a broad grin. It went like this: Augustesen trained alone or with a men’s team in Conegliano during the week, then she was flown in for the final training session on Friday or for the games.
Not only did her many goals make that possible, they also allowed her to start playing handball again in the top league. “Soccer game on Saturday, to the airport, handball game on Sunday in another part of the country,” says Augustesen. “The clubs accepted my terms. And I underwent additional physical training in handball.”
Commitment to Italy halts career in the national team
It went like this for six seasons. The Dane regularly won championship titles and became the top scorer. At Lazio, the coach sent her off and on to train with the men’s elite youth squad so she could continue to improve; she loved the challenge – and trained with the later internationals Bruno Giordano and Lionello Manfredonia. The memories make Susanne Augustesen go into raptures: “Imagine Padua, a mild Saturday evening, thousands of spectators, national players and many very good foreigners – Italy was the place for women’s football. In addition, the food, good wine – I didn’t miss Denmark.”
But in contrast to many of the team-mates from the 1971 World Cup, Augustesen incomprehensibly has no career in the national team. Despite all the successes in Italy, she only gets a call-up – but gets injured in the training camp. “After that I was told I was too far away in Italy, they couldn’t see me play. Or maybe the travel expenses were too high – I don’t know.”
Bitterness is still felt today; the relationship with the football association, the DBU, was never good. In 2017, ten years after the inauguration of the Danish Football Hall of Fame, the DBU finally welcomed a woman – it’s Susanne Augustesen, now 60, along with former international Lone Smidt Nielsen. A text is published that reports on the 15-year-old in the World Cup final – but her unprecedented career in Italy is just a side note.
Susanne Augustesen is not just about the personal. Women’s football has had to wait far too long for recognition in Denmark, she says. The associations in Italy, Sweden or the USA would have promoted elite development for girls and created good leagues much earlier. Even if Denmark is catching up, the country is still behind: women who seriously wanted to play professional football went abroad. Stars like national players Nadia Nadim or Pernille Harder grew up there. “A good product simply needs investment,” says Augustesen. “Professional football, marketing of TV rights – what is Denmark waiting for?”
Augustesen ended her own career abroad when she was almost 40, after which her life changed dramatically. She looked for other jobs in Italy, in service, in the travel industry, without much success. In Denmark, her faint hope of getting a job as a coach with the association is dashed. For a few years she had an office job in the city administration in Copenhagen, but a metabolic disease prevented her from working full-time. Retirement is now imminent – which she is looking at with some concern, because Augustesen has no entitlement to a pension from all the football years. It’ll work out somehow, she says.
She hasn’t lost her fighting spirit any more than she has lost her passion for football. “I think I could still do it – how about an offensive coach, maybe in the national team? I have the experience, I can do the technique and the tactics.” She leaves open whether she is serious.
She was looking forward to the European Championships a month ago and hoped that the Danes would advertise themselves. But the enthusiasm in the country was dampened, Denmark was eliminated in the group games.