“We think football is for everyone”

13 Feb

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“In Italy, we are behind…We need to make big steps. Not little steps. Big ones.” You might think this quote is related to any number of topics involving Italy and football. Racism. Homophobia. Embezzlement. All fair considerations. Also fair is sexism and attitudes towards women’s football.

The New York Times recently published a great article about the steps being taken by Italian club Fiorentina to tackle that sexism and increase the profile of women’s football locally, nationally, and internationally.

{Btw, if this article doesn’t give you thoughts about why Real Madrid, the world’s richest club, ignores the women’s game (along with Manchester United), well, I need to try a bit harder.}

In England, many top soccer clubs, including Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool, operate a women’s team alongside their more famous men’s team. In Spain, teams like Barcelona, Athletic Bilbao, Atlético Madrid and Espanyol do the same. In France, the top-division clubs Paris St.-Germain, Lyon, Montpelier and St.-Étienne also field professional women’s teams while in Germany the group includes Bayern Munich, Wolfsburg, Bayer Leverkusen and Hoffenheim.

In Italy, the number of clubs with teams of both sexes playing in Serie A — the league that on the men’s side includes famed organizations such as A.C. Milan, Inter Milan, Juventus and Roma — is much smaller.

That club, Fiorentina, is well aware of its position as an outlier. But here, in the heart of Tuscany, everyone who is part of this nascent women’s team — from players to coaches to executives — hopes that it might be the beginning of a long overdue change in the development of women’s soccer in Italy, which has fallen significantly out of step with other top soccer countries in Europe.

11ITALYSOCCERweb2-articleLarge“In Italy, people love football, but everybody thinks that football is only for men — they think it is a macho sport,” Sandro Mencucci, the executive managing director of Fiorentina and a driving force behind the women’s team, said in a recent interview. “Here, we know we are not typical. We think football is for everyone.”

To be fair, officials at the Italian soccer federation have not altogether ignored the growing women’s game; participation rates for girls in Italy have increased significantly in recent years because of a rule requiring clubs to register more female youth players. But the resources committed to the women’s game over all are comparatively tiny.

According to the most recent annual report by UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, the Italian federation allocated a budget of 3 million euros (about $3.4 million) to women’s soccer — about €7 million less than France’s budget and only a sixth of England’s outlay. The Netherlands, which has about 43 million fewer people than Italy, has a women’s soccer budget that is €1 million larger; Norway, with a population about a tenth the size of Italy’s, has a women’s soccer budget that is nearly twice as big.

In England, games from the women’s top division are shown on television regularly; in Italy, no league games are broadcast.

11ITALYSOCCERweb3-articleLarge“At the moment, I believe that in football, possibly, the situation is even worse than in other sports and in the overall society,” said Giorgia Giovannetti, an economics professor at the University of Florence who has studied gender equality in the workplace. “It is a field where sexism still prevails.”

A spokeswoman for Italy’s soccer federation declined to answer specific questions about women’s soccer, writing in an email that all information about the game was available on the federation’s website.

Patrizia Panico, a veteran of Italy’s national women’s team since the 1990s who remains, at 41, a top player for Fiorentina, said: “We are still far behind in Italy on many social progresses. Obviously this movement could have some acceleration if main institutions took a stance on female football as well, but so far it is just Fiorentina. Will others follow? We don’t know.”

The growth of women’s soccer is an issue that has increasingly received attention globally, with FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, increasing its financial investment and pushing national associations to make the game’s growth more of a priority. And women’s teams have recently shown themselves more willing to fight for their share of the pie; Australia’s federation was forced to pull out of two games against the United States amid a labor dispute with its players in the fall, and the World Cup-winning American team is embroiled in a lawsuit of its own with U.S. Soccer.

11ITALYSOCCERweb4-articleLargeTatjana Haenni, a former Swiss national team player and the head of women’s soccer for FIFA, said there was no singular path that a federation should take when it comes to expanding women’s soccer, adding that some countries, like Sweden, had a foundation of women’s soccer that existed apart from the men’s clubs and was developed from grass-roots levels on up.

Other countries, however — notably England, where most of the biggest Premier League clubs (although, notably, not all) have now embraced women’s soccer — are experiencing fast growth at the highest levels through news media exposure, fan interaction and twinned branding with men’s teams.

“It’s not that the women couldn’t do it by themselves, but right now there are more opportunities, better stadiums, better training centers with the men’s clubs,” Haenni said. “What I like about Fiorentina is, it’s using its power.”

She added: “For most associations, women’s football is a sport that is seen below men’s football, and so it gets that treatment. If you want to grow it, you have to take it out of this box.”

11ITALYSOCCERweb5-articleLargeThat is the goal at Fiorentina. Mencucci, the executive managing director, said the club raised the idea of creating a women’s team about two years ago, opting to study the operations of the city’s top club team for women — which was then unaffiliated — instead of starting from scratch. Fiorentina bought the unaffiliated team over the summer.

Current league rules prohibit clubs from paying players more than 25,000 euros per season, but Panico, who won the league championship last season with AGSM Verona, was one of several players to leave their clubs and join Fiorentina shortly after the changeover. In Panico’s case, doing so meant sacrificing a chance to play in the women’s Champions League this season.

“It was not a question,” she said. “A professional male soccer team wanted to dedicate itself to female football. I felt that I very much wanted to be a part of that project.”

Many of Fiorentina’s trappings are still modest. The women’s team does not play games at Stadio Artemio Franchi (which has a capacity of about 47,000), competing instead at smaller stadiums on the outskirts of town. Practices are at local fields, too, and after one recent training session — held on an artificial-turf field that had a view of an ancient apartment building — the Fiorentina players had to hustle off at an appointed time to make way for a youth team.

11ITALYSOCCERweb6-articleLargeStill, the changes from last season, when the team was independent, are stark. Fiorentina’s players receive medical care from club doctors and treatment from club trainers. There is a dedicated team manager and press officer. Sauro Fattori, the coach, has increased his staff and is no longer responsible for bringing soccer balls and other equipment to practice.

“Last year we had to wash our own uniforms,” said Giulia Orlandi, the team’s captain. “This season, we are in the same division, playing the same teams, but there is much more of a focus on helping us do our jobs well.”

So far, the Fiorentina players have done well. The team beat AGSM Verona, 3-1, two weeks ago and is tied for first in the league. Still, there has been little public momentum for other top clubs to follow Fiorentina’s lead. Giovannetti, the professor, said there were still significant cultural obstacles, citing a recent study by the European Institute for Gender Equality that found Italy to be near the bottom, and well below the continental average, in a wide variety of areas related to equality for men and women.

Italy “is still far from reaching satisfactory results” in this area, she said, adding that it was critical to change “the mentality of both men and women.”

Mencucci, the Fiorentina executive, acknowledged that the rest of the Italian league would probably watch to see how his club’s commitment to women’s soccer was received. Before launching the team, Fiorentina officials spent time examining the organization of other top clubs, including several in the top American league, the National Women’s Soccer League, in which at least three teams are affiliated with Major League Soccer franchises.

The goal, Mencucci said, is someday to reach the heights of Lyon, in France. That club’s president recently told Mencucci that it was easier for him to find sponsorship for his women’s team, a perpetual European juggernaut, than for the men’s team.

That kind of success may be far off, but there is no question that Fiorentina is ambitious. The club would be in favor, Mencucci said, of an increased salary cap for women’s teams as well as new rules in Serie A that would require all clubs that wanted to be licensed by the national federation to also field a female team.

These would be significant changes, but then that is the point.

“In Italy, we are behind,” Mencucci said. “We need to make big steps. Not little steps. Big ones.”

– hopechaser

2 Responses to ““We think football is for everyone””

  1. watishistacorrespondents February 14, 2016 at 11:04 am #

    I’ve been wanting a Real Madrid women’s team for a very long time. It was a point of contention between me and “Fanboy” for a very long time.

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