Juventus Women midfielder Sara Bjork Gunnarsdottir has spoken openly about how she was treated by Olympique Lyonnais when she found out that she was pregnant and when she returned to the sport following the birth of her son.
The 32-year-old has been a prominent player in Europe for many years, playing for the extremely successful Wolfsburg for four years before moving to Lyon in 2020, the eight-time UEFA Women’s Champions League winners.
As part of a Players’ Tribune piece that Gunnarsdottir has done, the Icelandic player has spoken frankly for the first time about the poor treatment that she received and the historic legal case that followed when she became pregnant in March 2021.
How Lyon dealt with the pregnancy
Lyon is a club that all women’s teams look up to, and Gunnarsdottir was the first player to ever get pregnant whilst playing for the club. On top of that, she had every intention of returning to play after having the baby.
She explained how the reaction from the team was positive when she broke the news, explaining why she had been throwing up so regularly.
“We were sitting in the locker room, the whole team. The director, staff members, physios, they were all there. And I just said I’d been feeling sick the past few weeks because, ‘Yeah…. I’m pregnant.’ It was funny to see their reactions because some of them were so shocked. I think there were a lot of mixed emotions — when a player says she’s pregnant, it’s a special moment, but it also comes with quite a few unknowns,” Gunnarsdottir said.
She opted to head home to Iceland for the pregnancy to be able to communicate with doctors in her own language and be closer to other family members.
The situation then went downhill as her paycheck did not arrive for three months and the club director was not responding. Eventually, they did get a response: “When Vincent [Ponsot, Lyon director general of football] finally responded, he apologised for two of the months I was missing, and said I would get paid for those. But for the third month, he says something about how they’re going by French law — meaning, they don’t owe me anything else. I said to Dietmar [Gunnarsdottir’s agent], ‘No that’s not right, they should be going by the FIFA rules.’”
It was known that FIFPro, the worldwide representative organisation for players, has been working on pregnancy and maternity leave for footballers. They decided to take this very seriously, which is where it got ugly.
“Dietmar kept pushing the issue, telling them, ‘Hey, still lacking salaries.’ But we’d get no response. The players’ union in France became involved, and then FIFPro. Weeks turned to months. Still no full paycheck. Lyon refused to give a clear answer on what the criterion was that was being applied. Finally, Dietmar told Vincent that FIFPro was going to fight this at the FIFA level. Vincent said: ‘If Sara goes to FIFA with this, she has no future in Lyon at all.’
When Gunnarsdottir returned to training after having her son, Ragnar, it was clear that things had changed. She explained how she was being told not to bring the baby on away trips and she said ‘they always made me feel like it was a negative thing that I had a baby.’
She was ignored by club president Jean-Michel Aulas when she returned and when she spoke to Vincent about his comments in regard to having no future at Lyon, he said that he hadn’t said that, and added: “It was the coach, Sonia [Bompastor], who decided she couldn’t see me as a future player in her team.”
Gunnarsdottir’s legal battle comes to an end
The results of the lawsuit came in May 2022 and the club was ordered to pay the salaries that had been withheld from Gunnarsdottir.
This is a major ruling for female football players as it creates a legal precedent for them to be correctly paid when they become pregnant. It should remove the ability for another professional club to act in the same way that Lyon did.
Gunnarsdottir spoke proudly about the significance of the ruling and why she decided to pursue it to completion.
“I was entitled to my full salary during my pregnancy and until the start of my maternity leave, according to the mandatory regulations from FIFA. These are part of my rights, and this can’t be disputed — even by a club as big as Lyon,” she said.
“That’s why I’m writing this. The victory felt bigger than me. It felt like a guarantee of financial security for all players who want to have a child during their career. That it’s not a ‘maybe,’ or an unknown. Ragnar is almost a year old, and we’re in a great place as a family. I’m at Juventus now, and I’m very happy.”