While the history of the Women’s World Cup dates back nearly 30 years, given the somewhat uneven development of the sport across the globe, it should come as no surprise that the power (and subsequent success) has been hoarded by several larger, wealthier nations. From the very first edition in 1991, the women’s game has been dominated by the United States (three titles, four finals), Germany (two titles, three finals), and Japan (two finals, one title), with the U.S. and Japan trading titles over the past two editions.
Italy, meanwhile, has been on the outside of the Women’s World Cup looking in since 1999, and while they were a powerhouse during the tournaments unofficial/invitational days, the ensuing decades have not been so kind to the Azzurre on the global stage. While they managed to reach the quarterfinals of the 2013 European Championships, success has been hard to come by for Italy, particularly on the sport’s grandest stage.
So, with a 20 year absence looming over their heads, Italy’s World Cup qualification campaign was necessarily seen as an important step in turning around the national program. Bolstered by a bevy of talented attack talent, Italy made quick work of the qualification process.
Not only did Italy finish top of their qualifying group, they did so while dropping only one match and outscoring their opponents by a whopping 19-4 margin. Led by the Juve duo of Barbara Bonansea and Cristiana Girelli, Italy’s attack was virtually unstoppable, but their precision in front of goal is only half the story of the Azzurre’s +15 goal differential.
Let’s talk about that defense for a moment, shall we?
In their eight qualifying matches, Italy pitched five shutouts, looking every bit the classic Italian team, frustrating their opponents with a well organized, swarming defense. And while she doesn’t don the armband for her country, Roma captain Elisa Bartoli was in the thick of the action for the Azzurre throughout their qualification campaign.
The Roman born and bred defender played in six of those qualification matches, logging 469 minutes of action (7th most on the squad), and would seem a lock for some heavy minutes this summer in France, where the 16th ranked Italians have been cast into a somewhat difficult group, one that will require all their defense powers to progress.
While Italy should be able to handle Jamaica relatively easily, squaring off with sixth ranked Australia and tenth ranked Brazil should be considerably tougher tasks, particularly the Brazilians, who stormed through their qualification with a virtually unblemished record, winning all four matches while conceding only one goal.
However, when it comes to World Cups, what matters most is results not reputation. Italy may not have the historic cache of the United States, Germany or Brazil, but, as their qualification record showed, they are an extremely potent attacking side bolstered by a practically impregnable defense, one led by the tireless legs of Elisa Bartoli.
Roma’s captain has been nothing short of magnificent for her hometown club during their debut season in Serie A—providing leadership, defensive expertise and even three goals thus far—and what better way to cap a successful year than by causing a ruckus on the World Cup stage?
It’s been awhile since Italy fans have had something to cheer about on the international stage, and they’d be hard pressed to find a player more deserving of that adulation than Bartoli.
The Women’s World Cup kicks off on June 7th when France plays host to South Korea, while Italy’s journey starts on June 9th against Australia.