Lyon midfielder Sara Bjork Gunnarsdottir, with husband Arni and son Ragnar, was back for Iceland four months after giving birth

Football-playing mums will feature in this summer’s Euros like never before, with enough mums in the squads to form their own first XI and a handful of substitutes.

The Icelandic formation includes the most mothers, with five in total. It explains why, when they last met competitively for the World Cup qualifiers in April, the conversation at one table turned to babies.

“I remember there were about six of us [players] sitting with a coffee and just talking about our birth experiences,” the team’s new mum, midfielder Sara Bjork Gunnarsdottir, told BBC Sport.

After giving birth to her son in November and with a view to a return in time for the Euros, the 31-year-old record holder now considers this conversation important.

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

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

Of seven mothers aiming to make Iceland coach Thorsteinn Halldorsson’s squad, West Ham midfielder Dagny Brynjarsdottir, veteran defender Sif Atladottir, goalkeeper Sandra Sigurdardottir and team-mate Valur Elisa Vidarsdottir have been shortlisted.

So did Gunnarsdottir, who had finished his season with few minutes under his belt for club and country, signing the campaign with Lyon as Champions League and French league title winners.

For Brynjarsdottir, who describes her comeback after the birth of her son Brynjar in 2018 as “the hardest thing I’ve done”, it’s a comeback that Iceland’s two-time sportswoman of the year Gunnarsdottir had to fight for. achieve.

First there were months of physical training with a specialist coach in Iceland to stay in shape during her pregnancy; then similarly targeted drills in Lyon as she returned.

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

In March, she was fit enough to return to the pitch for 45 minutes in Dijon.

“I remember halfway through the game I was just like ‘this is so good’,” she recalled.

Life away from the grass, however, was trying. Her husband, midfielder Arni Vilhjalmsson, played 250 miles for French Ligue 2 side Rodez and could only return a few days a week.

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

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

“At the same time, I was at my highest level of happiness. It’s an emotional rollercoaster.

“But I’m really proud of that time because I’ve worked so hard to get back into the shape I’m in and show others that you can be a professional footballer and a mother at the same time.

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

“I am stressed by the Euro”

In 2017, an employment report from global players’ union Fifpro found that only 2% of players were mothers, with many women leaving due to a lack of maternity policies to support them.

Since last year, new Fifa rules set conditions for paid maternity leave, with the right to return after pregnancy, to breastfeed and to have access to independent medical advice.

Fifpro sees this as a first step. Gunnarsdottir’s midfield partner for the last two Euros, Brynjarsdottir, 30, believes the right support is key to a successful return from pregnancy.

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

“You have to realize that they don’t think about football all the time, they have to balance other things and sometimes it’s difficult.”

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

Brynjarsdottir, 30, made her return to Portland Thorns in the United States National Women’s Soccer League and in 2021 joined Women’s Super League side West Ham. She praises both clubs.

Portland paid for her husband Omar to travel with her to away games while their son was a baby. West Ham are allowing her to bring four-year-old Brynjar into training if she ever needs to.

The Euros will present a different challenge for the Icelandic centurion, as players only have their children at camp if they are under a year old.

The federation says there is no general rule and tries to help their mothers on an individual basis so that they are comfortable with their camp arrangements.

Earlier this month, head coach Halldorsson changed the timings of a home camp so his side could spend as much time as possible with their family ahead of the Euros.

But with a 12-day pre-camp in Germany and Poland before the tournament kicks off, Brynjarsdottir knows it could be the longest she has spent outside of her son.

“To be honest, I’m a bit stressed for the Euros because we’re going to be out for a while,” she said. “I feel like we’re still pretty attached, both of us. It’s hard when I know my son wants to be with me and can’t.

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

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

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

Swedes Lina Hurtig, Hedvig Lindahl and Elin Rubensson can see their children in their spare time, with their FA offering a “family trip” for loved ones to follow the team and live together.

Germany’s Almuth Schult can have her partner and children with her. Brynjarsdottir’s baby can join her at what will be her fourth European Championship, with the federation paying for a ‘support person’ throughout.

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

“Hopefully we can get better deals in the fall that will suit moms better,” she says. “I know some moms like when they go to camp to take time for themselves.

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

“It probably won’t be like this while I’m still playing, but hopefully for the younger generation it will be easier for the mums who will be around later.”

Between them, the Icelandic mothers have over 400 caps, but Gunnarsdottir hopes they will bring more than playing experience to the Euros table.

“As players, we’re pretty selfish – it all depends on your career and your training, your diet, your sleep,” she says. “But it’s different now, you put your baby first.

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

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