HEELS TO CLEATS: CHANGING WOMEN’S FOOTBALL IN ITALY

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There are moments which define history, especially in football. Even an apparently tiny game, with just over 6,000 fans gathered, can represent a huge moment. The fact, though, is that we are not talking about men’s football, but women’s. After a 3-0 win against Portugal, the Italy women’s national team qualified again for a World Cup, just six months after the men’s national team missed this summer’s tournament in Russia. And the women made it to the finals for the first time in 20 years.


Two decades can be a lot to overcome. At the end of 1990s, Italy had obtained good results in women’s football. All the ‘90s were a huge demonstration of how they were doing well: a lot of managers were changed – six in all the ‘90s – and they reached the European Championships final on two occasions. Unfortunately for them, they lost both, but those results raised plenty of encouragement for a male-dominated sport in the country. In 1993, Italy lost to Norway, and in 1997, it was the German women that were champions.

Despite those losses, the Italian women’s national team also featured in the debut edition of FIFA Women’s World Cup, played in China in 1991. Italy reached the quarter-finals and lost, once again, to Norway. After missing the 1995 edition, Italy qualified again in 1999, however this time, despite being one of the strongest women’s sides in Europe, they couldn’t make it past the group stage, leading to a disappointing and underwhelming early exit.

Moreover, there was Carolina Morace, to this day, probably the most iconic player in Italian women’s football (alongside Patrizia Panico and Elisabetta Vignotto). To testify that legacy, she was the first female footballer to be inducted into the Italian Football Hall of Fame in 2014.

Among her amazing achievements, there’s a hat-trick scored at Wembley in 1990, the award of best player at the 1997 Euros, 104 goals in 150 caps with the Italy national team, 12-time top scorer in Italian championship (including 11 in a row!) and even two months as a manager of a lower-division men’s side, Viterbese, in 1999. That experience lasted briefly, but she has coached since then: first with the Italian women’s national team, then those in North America with Canada and Trinidad and Tobago and most recently returning to club football with AC Milan’s women’s team.

So how it was possible for Italy to reach these heights in women’s football and then almost disappear from the international stage?


Since entering the new millennium, Italy missed all the editions of the World Cup and they didn’t shine even on the continental stage: results obtained in the ‘90s remain the best-ever achieved. Italy never reached the semi-finals of the UEFA Euros again and the changes in women’s football in other countries has left them far behind, to a point where immense repair is required.

There was almost no development during the 2000s, while in the rest of Europe many nations allocated resources to their women’s national teams and football continued to grow. Just look at how Italy’s youth women’s national teams performed in the last 20 years: the Under-20 side featured in just two editions of World Cup and since the Olympic Games featured a women’s football tournament, the first in 1996, Italy never qualified for any edition. The only highlight was a 3rd place at the 2014 U-17 World Cup, which helped in launching a new generation on the field.

In this scenario, others performed differently. Just look at European soil: Germany won six consecutive European Championships and two World Cups (plus a gold medal at 2016 Olympic Games); Sweden and Norway remained relevant in the continental stage; Netherlands and Denmark recently played the 2017 European Championships final for the first time in their respective histories and also England are making a difference in the field – finishing third in the most recent World Cup held in Canada in 2015.

But there’s a different international context. While we’re used to see Europe and South America dominating men’s football, in the women’s game North America and Asia are the relevant forces. Apart from Brazil (two silver medals at the Olympics and runners-up at 2007 World Cup), the United States women’s national teams won three World Cups (and never finished lower than 3rd place) and also added five gold medals at the Olympics (having always played the final); Japan won 2011 World Cup and almost won the final at 2012 London’s Olympics while Canada are a strong force on women’s football since they achieved two bronze medals at the Olympics.

In this scenario, with European nations struggling to win big and the rest of the world way more developed than in men’s football, it’s no surprise that Italy had their struggles. The situation is really different from the United States, where the notorious “Title IX” helped gaining resources for USA women’s football movement. That 1972 education amendment – which helped preventing discrimination towards women on sports’ federal movements – worked until now, but the USA women’s national team had to protest since their equal pay-campaign took off even before winning the 2015 World Cup.

Plus, there’s a cultural problem: women’s football isn’t seen as interesting as men’s football. And that’s a big trouble, especially in Latin countries, where women have to fight to gain a place in the sun. Just look at the situation of women’s football in South America (Brazil are a happy exception). Only with interest come resources, possible revenues and, in the end, good results. Investments never came by themselves in women’s football and a possible solution was showed by other realities in Europe: especially in France and Germany, some clubs aggregated women’s team to their men’s squad.

That’s how a winning dynasty like Olympique Lyonnais Féminin was born – 16 French titles, including12 in a row and five Women’s Champions League trophies – and that’s how many other teams developed (Wolfsburg in Germany or FC Barcelona in Spain, for example). In the end, the Italian football federation took the hint and they opted for this choice. And the results are starting to show.


For years, women’s football in Italy had amateur status. There were some good teams, but none of them could impose themselves on the European stage. Among them, Bardolino Verona – today known as ASGM Verona – even reached the semi-finals of Women’s Champions League, losing to FFC Frankfurt and playing the 2nd leg at the “Bentegodi” of Verona, in front of 12,500 people. You could already sense that women’s football could be interesting for Italian fans if followed in the right way.

The real first step towards renaissance came in recent years, when the FIGC (the Italian football federation) opted for several changes. Among the ones which to this date are still to happen on other matters, women’s football needed a helping hand to survive and progress. Just look at Brescia Calcio, which recently had to dissolve and sold their license to AC Milan. They made history in women’s football, but it wasn’t a profiting business.

Creating a new environment was crucial also to protect the pro-status in women’s football, regulated by a law in 1981. Just as she explained in an interview with “L’Ultimo Uomo”, Regina Baresi – daughter of Inter’s Giuseppe Baresi and niece of the legendary AC Milan’s sweeper, Franco – underlined the current troubles to keep this football dream alive: The same players were requesting a help, like Patrizia Panico – the women who overcame Carolina Morace’s great records – said once: “The briefest way is to rely on the men’s club already existing.”

“We put a lot of sacrifices into this passion, which is the only thing that makes us go forward, since we don’t have a pro-status: we receive – at best – an expense account and we train from 8 to 10 p.m. after a whole work-day.” – Regina Baresi

And so it happened: the FIGC pushed clubs to add youth women’s sectors in their ranks and some Serie A clubs have created a women’s side. The first was Fiorentina in Summer 2015, when the Florence-based club picked up the title of ACF Firenze: a good choice, since Fiorentina won the Italian title in 2016-17. Subsequently, other clubs followed. When Juventus created their women’s side, they rocked the season, winning the championship in their debut season after a play-off against Brescia. And now Inter, Roma and AC Milan are ready to take on the challenge.

This change will impact the future – many young girls are trying football (a drastic increase of female football players between 2009 and 2016) – and it’s already modifying the current scenario, with several foreign players coming to Italy to experience a new reality. The future looks promising, but that shouldn’t ease the problems


One has to remember how women’s football (and women in general) are treated in Italy. There isn’t much respect and a patriarchal vision of society is still in the veins of Italy’s sociological view and women’s football isn’t seen as an enjoyable hobby. Plus, the executives haven’t being paying much attention, as seen by their errors. At one time, the former FIGC chief Carlo Tavecchio defined women’s players as “handicapped in football” and also when Felice Bellioli, former Lega Nazionale Dilettanti president (the amateur football organization) bragged about stopping pay for female footballers, outrageously referring to them as “a bunch of lesbians”.

So, what could we expect from Italy in the next years? It won’t be easy to progress: despite many changes, it’s a long way to the top, especially if opponents have years – if not decades – of advantage, both professionally and culturally speaking. Just take the recent example of the dispute between the Lega Nazionale Dilettanti (LND) and the FIGC. In May 2018, the management of the women’s game was destined to move to the latter party, thus enabling all women’s clubs to gain a full professional status. Unfortunately, the LND didn’t want to lose those rights, and in July 2018, a decision from the federal court allowed them to keep those rights.

This was a big defeat for women’s football in Italy. The LND have proven to be incompetent in recent years with their management – an example of that was well-evident in the 2006 Women’s Italian Cup final where they failed to provide a trophy for the winners. Even former professionals have voiced their concern over the mismanagement by the organisation, most prominently, Silvia Fuselli, who currently plays for the Chievo women’s side. She spoke widely about how it’s damaging the improving women’s game in Italy and how it’s the wrong step to take with the country being so close to qualification for next year’s World Cup.

However, it isn’t all doom and gloom. There are some signs of positivity, despite the poor organisation in the hierarchy.. Under the management of Milena Bertolini (the former Brescia head coach and also the Italian national since August 2017), Italy has finally stepped up on the international stage. And Italian players are experiencing interest from foreign clubs: for example, Elena Linari just signed for Atlético Madrid.

She moved from Fiorentina, the club located in Florence, the same city who saw the major part of that blossom called “Rinascimento”. In that time – between the half of 14th century and the end of the 16th –, Italy was the engine of a powerful movement, which gained cultural and artistic traction in the whole country. Almost five centuries later, this football Renaissance could have seen its first seeds in that afternoon of June 2018, when three women – Cristiana Girelli, Cecilia Salvai and Barbara Bonansea – launched Italy towards a new World Cup-participation. And maybe to a different and better future, where, hopefully, women can own their football destiny in their hands.

BY GABRIELE ANELLO

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