This article is part of the Guardian’s 2019 Women’s World Cup Experts’ Network, a cooperation between some of the best media organizations from the 24 countries who have qualified for France. The Equalizer, as part of the network, will profile each of the 24 countries.
Le Azzurre qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 20 years and managed to do so only seven months after the men’s team failed to qualify for Russia 2018, an achievement that could mark the beginning of a new era for women’s football in Italy.
The World Cup qualification isn’t the only positive development in the sport in Italy. Last March, Juventus Women played for the first time at Allianz Stadium, facing second-place Fiorentina in front of 39,027 people. That crowd shattered the previous record attendance for a women’s club match in the country, set in 2008 when Bardolino and Frankfurt played in front of 14,000 spectators. Sky Sports has secured (non-exclusive) rights to broadcast the World Cup and players like Sara Gama, Barbara Bonansea and Cristiana Girelli are becoming increasingly popular with football fans.
Italy won their qualifying group and conceded only four goals in eight games, allowing two of those in their final game against Belgium after they had secured their spot at the World Cup. That defensive solidity will be one of the team’s key strengths in France too, despite the loss of the central defender Cecilia Salvai to an ACL injury. The team is well organized and has talented players, but it lacks physical presence in some areas of the pitch.
“Our players started to train five to six times per week only at the age of 20 [to] 22,” coach Milena Bertolini says. Bertolini has a few players in the squad who have played abroad—such as captain Gama, who has had two seasons with PSG, defender Elena Linari, who has just won La Liga with Atlético Madrid, and striker Ilaria Mauro and goalkeeper Laura Giuliani, who have spent several years in Germany—but a major concern is that several players have not played a lot of international football.
Bertolini maintains that Le Azzurre should be “humble and carefree.” She started training camp very early on, in the second week of May, to help her players get to grips with the way she wants to play. The coach likes to mix things up and use different formations, and Italy can play in a 4-3-3 or a 4-4-2, thanks to versatile midfielders like Bonansea, Valentina Cernoia, Aurora Galli and Manuela Giugliano. Bonansea, probably the best player in the squad, can operate as a midfielder or as a left or right winger. Bertolini’s dilemma is which combination to pick up front in France. Girelli, Valentina Giacinti, Ilaria Mauro and Daniela Sabatino all have different qualities and supplement each other in different ways with one apparent paradox: Giacinti, the 2018 and 2019 Serie A top scorer, often starts on the bench.
Milena Bertolini was appointed in August 2017, replacing Italian football legend Antonio Cabrini, who had been in charge for five years. A 52-year-old former central defender, Bertolini began working as a physical trainer and assistant before coaching women’s teams in Verona, Reggio Emilia and Brescia. “I don’t care about formations, but I do care about concepts,” she says. In recent interviews, she has mentioned Zdenek Zeman and Pep Guardiola as her role models for their attacking style of football, and Carlo Ancelotti as an example for his ability to communicate with his players.
Barbara Bonansea, who will turn 28 the day before Italy plays Jamaica, plays with Juventus Women as a winger or midfielder. She won the Serie A and Coppa Italia double in 2019 while studying economics at the University of Turin. An Instagrammer with 80,000 followers, she likes to play the guitar and is a fan of Dan Brown’s books. FIFA.com once described her as “being able to balletically slalom past opponents on grass like Alberto Tomba did poles on snow.”
Did you know?
Brief history of women’s football in Italy
The first Italian women’s team started in Milan in the 1930s, a time when the players wore skirts. The sport saw another spike again at the end of World War II, when two teams were founded in Trieste, but a women’s federation—the Federazione Italiana Calcio Femminile—was not founded until 1968. That same year, Genoa won the first national championship, beating nine other teams to the title.
A female footballers’ association was founded in 1980, but women’s football only became truly popular in the 1980s. Italy won the bronze medal at the 1984 and the 1987 European Championships and were runners up in the 1993 and 1997 editions. The team’s best result in a World Cup was in 1991, when Le Azzurre reached the quarterfinals in China, losing to Norway. Those were the years when Carolina Morace, the most famous Italian footballer ever, was in her prime. Morace scored more than 100 goals for the national team and was the first woman to ever train a men’s team, Viterbese, in Serie C1, the third tier in the Italian football league system.
A lot has happened since then. Top men’s teams are now required to have a women’s team, and the 2018-19 Serie A campaign was the first to be organized by FIGC, the Italian Football Federation.
Which player is going to surprise everyone at the World Cup?
Cristiana Girelli, Juventus’s number 10, seems ready to impress at the highest level. In World Cup qualifiers, she scored in both games against Belgium and in the home win against Portugal, confirming her position as the most crucial player in Italy’s front line. Puma chose her as an ambassador for their new boots, and she headed their marketing campaign in February this year. Last November, she was targeted by some (male) Fiorentina fans who shouted insults about her body towards her during a game, but she spoke very eloquently about it afterwards, winning plaudits for standing up to the “imbeciles,” as she called them.
What is the realistic aim for Italy in France and why?
Italy has a clear goal: to reach the knockout stage for the first time since 1991. Le Azzurre hope to surprise Australia and Brazil, the toughest opponents in Group C, and are aware that they have to win against Jamaica, who are 53rd in the FIFA rankings, to achieve this goal.
Annual budget for the women’s national team
Around $3.8-4.4 million (the men’s budget is $32 million).
Registered female players
23,665 (as of 2017).
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