All About Women’s Sports: Lyon Face A Harsh Truth Over Poor Maternity Leave Support

By Claire Guest

Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir, an Icelandic midfielder, came forward to the sports community claiming her unfair treatment by her club team, Olympique Lyon, during her pregnancy.

She is a professional soccer player and has achieved numerous personal and team successes, internationally and professionally, and is considered one of the elite women’s soccer players in the world.

Like her determination in soccer, Gunnarsdóttir is similarly focused on the rights of female athletes and feminist issues. She has raised serious concerns recently about how she was treated by Lyon when she announced and progressed through her pregnancy. 

Her successful legal case based on that mistreatment will hopefully change the landscape for all soccer players, and even more hopeful, all amateur and professional female athletes throughout the world.

Lyon is a well-known professional soccer club, with both male and female soccer players throughout the world dreaming of playing for Lyon their whole life. It is one of the most successful clubs in the world. The women’s team has won eight Champions Leagues, and some of the best female players in the world have played for Lyon, including Lucy Bronze, Megan Rapinoe and Danielle Van de Donk. 

Gunnarsdóttir had always dreamed of playing for Olympique Lyon. In 2020, she moved to Lyon and lived out her dream, joining the team, emerging as a central player and leading her team to victory in the Champions League.

Then she got pregnant.

From the moment she found out she was pregnant, Lyon team officials urged her to keep it a secret. She complied, reluctantly, and kept playing games at five weeks pregnant. She only stopped when she could not physically play anymore and was throwing up many times before the game.

Eventually, Gunnarsdóttir felt she needed to confide in her teammates — it was not fair to be practicing and playing at a reduced level without sharing the reasons.

Her teammates were excited for her, as being pregnant should be a special experience, yet they were curious how this process would work, as she was the first in Lyon’s history to get pregnant while still fully intending to come back to Lyon.

The director of Lyon and Gunnarsdóttir had a meeting to discuss her future at the club. They both agreed on the terms of her carrying out her pregnancy at home with her family and communicating in her native language, as well as her returning to Lyon after giving birth. 

She was very clear on her intentions of returning to Lyon.

According to The Player’s Tribune, “I didn’t have any reason to think anything would go wrong,” said Gunnarsdóttir, “until I didn’t get my first paycheck.”

Her teammates were paid right on time, as she checked in with them.

Months went by and she still never got her paychecks, so she and her agency team wrote to the Lyon club director, Vincent Ponsot. Ponsot said Lyon was abiding by French law when they should be following FIFA regulations.

Eventually, Gunnarsdóttir persuaded FIFA to fight on her behalf, and Ponsot said she had no future at Lyon due to Gunnarsdottir’s supportive involvement of FIFA.

From April to August — the time she was home in Iceland pregnant — Olympique Lyon never formally reached out to her to check in on her status, health, pregnancy or how any training was going. 

When she finally returned to the club she did not feel welcomed at all. The staff instructed her not to bring her baby to any of the games, as the baby might cry and disturb the team. Gunnarsdóttir shook her head and said no. Then, the club said they would give her and her son two away games to test how her baby would do. She shook her head again, and said she will not let her baby be a test.

FIFPRO’s lawsuit came back with a decision. The results were for Lyon to pay Gunnarsdóttir her unpaid salaries and the full amount she was owed.

This victory was bigger than just her, Gunnarsdóttir anticipated. She felt as though this was security for all players who want to have children while in the midst of their athletic careers. 

According to The Player’s Tribune Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir said, “This is about my rights as a worker, as a woman, and as a human being.”