“Hold on, they’re talking about the World Cup!” It was nearly midnight, and as my wife and I parked the car in front of her home in rural Tuscany, the radio signal finally started coming in clear. Between songs, the late-night hosts of a popular station Radio Deejay took a moment to shout out this summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup ahead of Italy’s opening match. I quickly reached for the volume to hear what they were saying.
“The game is slower than the men’s game, but it’s more technical and you can see more,” explained the male voice over the radio waves.
My heart sank a bit. I knew he was trying to find a way to tell listeners why these games would be worth watching, but this is the reality of the women’s game in Italy. Calcio is a religion, and men’s club soccer along with the four men’s World Cup titles have long been the holy text. Women’s soccer, although it has experienced brief renaissances, has long eluded even those most passionate about the beautiful game.
Despite the lack of fanfare at home, Le Azzurre would go on to win its first match against Argentina, but the hope would end there. The team took a beating from Sweden in the next match, losing 5-0, and was served a frustrating 3-2 loss to South Africa stemming from a poorly placed back bass turning into an own goal – and for the most part, the country shrugged.
An indifferent media landscape
In 2019, Le Azzurre did what no one thought was possible by making their way to a quarterfinal in the FIFA Women’s World Cup. It had been the first World Cup the team had participated in nearly 20 years after previously failing to qualify four consecutive times.
The team’s strong performance fed a country hungry to support their compatriots playing the nation’s most beloved game. Bars and households in every region began to tune in to support the squad, hopeful once again.
Although they fell 2-0 to the Netherlands, the strong tournament performance provided hope that future success and support was surely on the horizon for the women’s team.
The momentum of Italy’s quarterfinal appearance in 2019 would be short lived. The team crashed out of the 2022 Euros following a 5-1 thrashing by France, and the team’s lackluster third place finish in the 2023 Arnold Clark Cup gave further anxieties to fans hoping to see a strong side at this summer’s World Cup.
Instead of with a bang, media attention on the 2023 tournament only trickled in. The morning of the team’s first group stage match, not a single mention of the Women’s World Cup could be found on the front page of the country’s largest sporting newspaper. It would take 27 pages for the tournament to receive a one page write-up.
Further demonstrating a country’s indifference to the women’s game, multiple instances of misspelling Cristiana Girelli’s name were identified on television. Variations included “Cristiana Gibella” and “Tiziana Girelli.” Girelli, a Juventus player, is a prolific scorer for the Italian women’s national team having scored third most goals in team history.
The notion of any news network spelling a men’s soccer icon’s name wrong in such a manner is frankly, unthinkable. Notably, Girelli has scored more goals for the women’s national team (54) than the highest scorer for the men, Gigi Riva (35).
Following Italy’s 1-0 win in the opening match against Argentina, Italy’s national newspapers barely mentioned the feat, giving little space to the Women’s World Cup and electing instead to focus on the men’s club transfer market. The choice to not promote and drum up support for the women’s national team is confounding, especially considering the men’s national team has failed twice in a row to earn a spot in the FIFA Men’s World Cups of 2022 and 2018.
Those hoping to partake in World Cup viewership in the group stage beyond the Italian women’s matches would also find themselves sorely disappointed. After a drawn out debate with FIFA over broadcasting agreements, the country’s public broadcasting company RAI finally agreed to show 15 games: the opening New Zealand match, Italian group stage matches, and the knockout rounds. Part of the issue stemmed from FIFA no longer coupling the rights to the men’s and women’s tournaments, forcing Italy and other European nations to raise their bids to show the women’s matches.
During remarks given ahead of the final, FIFA president Gianni Infantino pointed out how at the men’s World Cup just months prior, over three dozen Italian journalists were present to cover a competition that did not include their home country’s team. Meanwhile, at the Women’s World Cup, not a single Italian journalist was present in New Zealand to cover Le Azzure and their group stage run.
This lack of urgency to show the games served as an additional frustration for those hoping to sew support for the women’s team in Italy. The question remains, why would the Italian public feel compelled to support Le Azzurre and women’s soccer in general when Italy itself has made the game so inaccessible?
Where do they go from here?
Despite the success of the 1991 and 1999 Women’s World Cups, Italy has always lagged behind many of its counterparts when it comes to the women’s game on the world stage. The country’s first division women’s league Serie A Femminile only began to consistently air games on Italian television in 2018 and just fully professionalized in 2022.
Historically, the country has grappled with an uphill battle regarding investment in the women’s game. In 2015, the president of the Italian Amateur Football Association (LDN) Felice Belloni allegedly advocated against funding for women’s football, calling the players “a bunch of lesbians” during the meeting of a women’s football advisory panel and was eventually forced to resign.
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Following their group stage exit at the World Cup this summer, almost every player on the Le Azzurre took to Instagram to express their frustration in a lack of support from the federation. The players pointed to their talented squad and successful Serie A teams and expressed confusion as to why the team continues to struggle despite a deep roster and passion for the game.
Although scant on details, it was clear from the statement that the team as a unit felt unsupported by the federation, let down by the coaching, and dismayed at the lack of care given to the women’s team. Just days later, head coach Milena Bertolini stepped down from the role, issuing a lengthy statement that included the line, “when you point your finger at someone, the other three fingers of our hand point back at ourselves.”
With UEFA Nation’s League deciding the 2024 Olympic spots, Italy will have to get behind their women’s national team to help get them over the finish line. It is clear that for women’s soccer to find success in Italy, it will take proper investment from the federation, the media, and a country of hungry soccer fans eager to once again find glory in the beautiful game.
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