Tears fell at the San Siro as 72,696 fans slipped back through the gates and dispersed through Milan. For the first time in 60 years, Italy had failed to qualify for the Men’s World Cup. Fans and commentators around the world were poleaxed: How could a World Cup take place without Italy? The 2018 tournament would provide the answer.
Three weeks prior to Italy’s loss to Sweden in the World Cup qualifying playoff, some 400 miles south of the San Siro, 530 fans had gathered to watch the Italian women’s national team beat Romania 3-0, maintaining their 100 percent start to 2019 World Cup qualification. Milena Bertolini’s team had made little noise in the sleepy Castel di Sangro commune, the team quietly putting results together after a disappointing Euros that saw Antonio Cabrini leave after five years at the helm. There would be sterner tests for the Azzurre throughout qualification; a trip to Portugal at the end of November and a home visit from Belgium the following April.
A week out from the start of the 2018 World Cup, when many Italians were asking themselves how they would spend their summer, a respectable crowd of 6,500 settled at the Stadio Artemio Franchi in Florence to watch the women’s team seal their place at the 2019 World Cup. It had taken the better part of two decades, but Italy were going back to the Women’s World Cup. The global landscape of soccer has changed considerably over the years and few could remember the great Italy team of the 1980s and ‘90s.
Although Italian men had been winning World Cups for over 60 years before the women even had a professional FIFA tournament, their female counterparts had been ruling the equivalent international competitions. Italy ruled the Mundialito – the invitational precursor to the first FIFA-sanctioned Women’s World Cup in 1991 – winning it three times, and they fared well at the 1970 Coppa del Mondo as well as the Mundial in Mexico the following year.
While the Azzurre could boast the home advantage at the Mundialito, it was far more than a knowledge of their locality that saw them reach all four finals between 1984 and 1988. The players in the national team during that era were some of the best Italy has ever known.
“For fifteen years, it was like Italian women’s football was not going on,” she said. “But in the last three years there have been a lot of changes, due to what the federation has done as well. With the new laws, now the teams in the men’s Serie A are supposed to have a women’s team.” – Milena Bertolini
The ‘80s and ‘90s were the heyday of women’s soccer in Italy, as AS Roma coach Elisabetta Bavagnoli recalls.
“We definitely had a lot of very good players – both Italian and foreign – during that period,” she said. “It really was a time when we fought a lot of battles and secured some big achievements. Thinking back now, I have no doubt that the players of that era were proper women’s football pioneers.”
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