When Italy Led The Way In Women’s Football

Here at Fiorentina, we know only too well the problems that exist in women’s football in Italy. We are still awaiting the Sports Reform bill to be passed which would finally bring professionalism to female athletes.

Minister of Sport, Vincenzo Spadafora, has promised that this will be ready by January next year. However, anyone with even a little knowledge of Italian politics will know that this was never going to be a straightforward process.

As long as these issues are left unresolved, there is always the danger of losing our top players to bigger European clubs, where women can earn a decent wage. We’ve already suffered the painful departure of our hometown hero and captain Alia Guagni to Atletico Madrid. Before that, another of our 2016/17 title winning team, Elena Linari had already joined the Spanish club, and very recently we almost lost another of our stars, Tatiana Bonetti.

This has already been written about and examined well enough by the Viola Nation team. What I want to do, is take you back to a time when Italy was actually a desired destination of many foreign women players. But before that I will possibly surprise even more people by taking you to a period when Italy was at the forefront of women’s international football.

We can go all the way back to 1970, when of course we were still without a Women’s World Cup; we would have to wait another couple of decades for that. To understand what women’s football was like at that time, we can take a look at England, now a mecca for the stars of the women’s game with it’s professional league. In 1970 however, they still prohibited women playing on any FA football ground. This ban would be lifted a year later, but it had been in place for 50 years. The reason- a group of female factory workers playing for charity. They had got together during the First World War, playing exhibition matches in order to raise money for injured British soldiers. The FA, scared by how popular they had become, tried using some scare tactics of their own. They employed medical experts to announce that women were not biologically built to play football, and not only that, but that it could lead to infertility. When this failed, they decided to ban them completely from their grounds.

Back to Italy, 1970, and here we see, not FIFA, but the FIEFF (Federation of Independent European Female Football) organize what they called the “Coppa del Mondo. The event was sponsored by drinks company Martini, and the only reason it wasn’t a European competition was the appearance of Mexico. The hosts made it to the final only to lose out to Denmark in front of a crowd of a reported 40,000 people in Torino. The other countries to take part were West Germany, England, Austria and Switzerland.

This was not to be the end of unofficial World Cups for women, and again it was Italy where it all took place. On four occasions between 1984 and 1988 they hosted what they now called Mundialito or Little World Cup. Little, due to the fact that only four invited countries would take part in each tournament. Italy had already won a similar competition held in Japan in 1981, and of the four tournaments they hosted they were victorious in two, the other two trophies going to England. Other nations that took part included West Germany, Belgium, Denmark, China, Japan and France. One other country also appeared, a nation that would go on to be quite successful when the official World Cup was eventually organized, the United States.

The US, in fact, played their first ever international women’s match here in 1985, losing 1-0 to the hosts. Sharon McMurtry could have become their first ever goal scorer, only to miss a penalty in that game. That honour would fall instead to Michelle Akers in the next game, a 2-2 draw with Denmark. The winning Italian goal in that first US match was scored by none other than Italian football legend Carolina Morace. A top scorer in Serie A in the 1980’s and 90’s, she would go on to manage the Italian national team in 2000. Before that though, she would become the first woman to coach a professional men’s team when she took charge of Serie C1 side Viterbese. Unfortunately that didn’t last long, not due to results though, but a meddling club owner, Luciano Gaucci. He decided to get rid of Carolina’s trusted assistant, Betty Bavagnoli to bring in his own choice, and Morace left after only 2 games in charge.

So the fact that Italy was such a driving force behind the women’s international game, it makes sense that it would also be a place that many foreign players wished to experience. Football was certainly more organized in Italy back then than in places like the UK, and women there realized that they could actually earn money here playing the sport that they loved.

Rose Reilly, although she hailed from Scotland, also represented Italy on 22 occasions, scoring 13 goals. She even won that first Mundialito in 1984, and voted best player in the Italian team. She had come to Italy by way of French club Reims, at the time one of the strongest teams around. They would regularly go on international tours, and this is how she was spotted by Serie A side, A.C.F. Milan. She spent 4 years at the club, winning two league titles, out of a total of 8 that she would go on to win during her over 20 year career in Italy. As well as spells with top clubs at the time like Alaska Lecce and Trani 80, she even played in Florence. She appeared for both Firenze Casa ’77 and Oltrarno Firenze.

There was another player that was in that Reims team with Rose who also became a big star in Italian football. Even in Ireland the name Anne O’Brien is not well known in footballing circles. I wonder does our own Irish star Louise Quinn know her story? Snapped up by Reims on another of their international trips, this time playing a Dublin selection in Ireland. This midfield maestro would win three successive French titles in her three years at the club, but after she was spotted on an end of season trip to Italy, Lazio made her an offer she couldn’t refuse. She would have two spells at the club, a season at Trani 80 in between those. With Lazio she won an Italian Cup and two League titles, going on to collect six Scudetti and two Italian Cups in a career that lasted 18 years in Italy. Her other clubs included Napoli, Modena, Prato, Reggiana and Milan Salvarani.

Unfortunately Anne’s international career suffered because of this, making very rare appearances for an Ireland side that in those days certainly didn’t spend money to bring a foreign player home, no matter how big a star she might have been. Anne though was clearly very happy in her new home, never returning to live in Ireland, she died in Rome in 2016, aged just 60. She certainly didn’t leave football behind after her playing days were over at the age of 38. At this stage she had already earned her coaching badges at Coverciano in Florence, and went on to manage her beloved Lazio and also Civitavecchia. Carolina Morace is on record as saying that Anne was one of her big inspirations and one of the best players in the world.

Another player who went on to coach also played alongside Anne O’Brien at Lazio. Swedish legend Pia Sundhage only spent one season in Italy, but she did win an Italian Cup in that time, and scored 17 goals for the club. Pia, who is now the Brazilian coach, took charge of the USA team between 2008 and 2012, winning 2 Olympic golds and a runner-up spot at the World Cup.

There were quite a few Danish players around that time that made there way to Italy. Another player who didn’t overstay her welcome was Lone Smidt Hansen, who spent just 2 seasons, at Trani 80, but she won the League title in both seasons and was top scorer in Serie A for one of those. She then returned home to her native Denmark, where she made 57 appearances for the national side, scoring 22 goals.

A team mate of Hansen at Trani, but who stayed much longer in Italy (in fact she’s still there) is Ulla Bastrup. After her title wins with Trani 80, she moved on to Milan 82, and then Fiammamonza. Her final club was Delfino, from Cagliari. She joined them in Serie B but helped to take them to Serie A to finish her playing career in the top flight. She then went on to coach ASI Monza, who she took from Serie D to Serie B. This was in fact the same club she had previously played for, Fiammamonza.

Yet another Danish player, and another to have a long career in Italy, was Susy Augustesen, She enjoyed over 20 years playing at the top level of Italian football, which included three different spells at Lazio. She also enjoyed success at Trani, Alaska Lecce, Modena, Gamma 3 Padova, along with a couple of spells with Cagliari. Unfortunately she was another whose international career suffered, despite having won an unofficial World Cup with Denmark as a 15 year old. In 1971, a year after the Coppa del Mondo in Italy, she scored a hat-trick in the final of a competition held in Mexico.

Conchi Sánchez, was a Spanish striker who came to Italy at the age of 17, joining Gamma 3 Padova. She went on to play for over 20 years in Italy, winning 7 league titles and 8 Italian Cups. Her other clubs included Lazio, a team she returned to on two occasions, Trani, Verona, Cagliari and Prato. She ended her career though, at the age of 39, in England, where she played for just that final season, with Arsenal.

Of course we do still attract some foreign players, speaking of Arsenal, we have 2 former Gunners in our squad right now: the Irish international, award winning defender Louise Quinn and from Denmark Janni Arnth. Another Danish international in our team is Frederikke Thøgersen. We have a Scottish striker in Lana Clelland, Tessel Middag from the Netherlands. Portugal’s national captain Cláudia Neto also joined us recently. A Swedish goalkeeper, Stéphanie Öhrström, a German, Stephanie Breitner, and from the US Janelle Cordia and our latest signing Abi Kim.

So it’s not all bad news, even if times have changed since those golden years. The Italian national team finally made their way back to the world stage, putting on a great display at the last World Cup. We have Serie A clubs now moving into the Women’s league, Fiorentina being the first of those.

We have an owner who is building an amazing Centro Sportivo, which will be available for our women’s team as much as for the men. If Italy can finally move with the times and give athletes here the recognition and benefits that they deserve, who knows, maybe more international stars will be attracted not only to Fiorentina, but to Serie A and Italian football in general. Let’s keep it optimistic!

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