I’ll be the first to say: when I did get around to tuning into the Roma women’s side, I tuned in expecting a higher level of physical competition. That’s a factor that’s already confronted by people inside the game. Roma coach Betty Bavagnoli can count herself among those voices openly talking about the competitive levels the Italian league has lost and looking to recover.
If you don’t like a sport, no one is saying you must watch it. I have found things to love about the Roma women’s team - and football itself - that men’s football either never could or no longer can provide. But whether I or you choose to watch the game is hardly the biggest obstacle for women’s football to confront today.
We’re talking about a side of football that has proven time and again: the audiences are there. Audience has rarely ever been a problem for women’s calcio. Nor has Italy shown itself - through history - a country where maschilismo reigns at the expense of taking risks.
Italian sport has often piooneered women’s football for the best part of the sport’s existence. Admittedly those risks were finally taken in times where it was most opportune to do so for all - how could we expect otherwise? - but the Italian scene didn’t back down from ever trying to strike while the iron is hot.
What the game has done, time and again, is stumble just when the momentum was built. How would that be any different from the gripes we have on the men’s side of the game?
It almost always boils down to the few patrons in a position to make the key decisions. We’re not talking a problem of getting the many onside to support the game, but the few.
The first genuine efforts at organised patronage in women’s calcio go back as far as the early 1960s. The foundations were set for Amedeo Amadei, one of Roma’s most celebrated icons, coming to the forefront of the woman’s national game in the later decade.
Seventies’ Calcio Reborn in Amadei’s Neighbourhood
If I learn nothing else from going back to the seventies, I’ve at least calmed my fears of Roma moving out of city limits to find their new Stadio della Roma home - should they really go ahead with building it near Fiumicino. On the other side of the city, housed next to Rome’s other more private airport Ciampino, sit the footballing grounds of Amadei in his famiy’s Frascati neighbourhood. It’s a home to Roma’s football outside the city for several Roma teams now.
We’ve briefly covered Amadei’s Roma legend in our Greatest Roma Number 9s feature. He is the man who’s long-standing record as Serie A’s youngest ever goalscorer was finally equaled (literally to the very day) by Pietro Pellegri in 2016. Unlike Pellegri however, a 16-year-old Amadei broke his scoring duck on the way to become a key part of bringing home Roma’s first ever Scudetto in 1942. He tasted sporting success early as a player, but the rest of his career would be a mix of sacrifice and anti-climax amid all the goals scored.
Amadei had to juggle football with maintaining his family’s bakery business during the war, and would never truly get a shot at international success with the Azzurri throughout his playing career. He had the misfortune of being born in the time of that historical Grande Torino squad favoured by the Italy CT Vittorio Pozzo to World Cup success, while Amadei was left in the shadows at home.
We’ll never know if Amadei spending his playing days watching Italy team from the periphery drove his managerial career. However much it weighed in, Amadei took on the challenge of becoming the Italian women’s national coach - only the second ever in the country’s history - in 1972. Once he agreed to take on that position, the Roma Hall of Famer dedicated everything he had to his decision.
Italy’s record-goalgetter Betty Vignotto described Amadei’s time in charge of the Italy women’s team as one where he “put in his personal money into it” and the Frascati-born baker’s son was not alone in his endeavours. He’d been hired by a private group of pioneers, led by drinks company Martini (or Martini e Rossi), who’d already shown that women’s football could land huge crowds in the couple of years prior.
The liquor brand’s strategy for promoting the sport - both on the peninsula and internationally at the time - is the blueprint we recognise Red Bull using today: being everywhere and having a sponsored interest in absolutely everything.
Martini put money into motorsport, international TV debates, celebrities and - back in Italy - hosting women’s fencing and football tournaments from the late sixties onward. The buzz around women’s football convinced Martini to go bigger in 1971, paying for the participation and travel of all six nations competing in the first-ever Women’s World Cup. The event was non-sanctioned and unofficial in FIFA terms, but that didn’t stop the competition from pulling in huge crowds in Central America.
Following on from FIFA’s 1970 World Cup tournament in the same venue, the 1971 Women’s World Cup final housed a 110,000-strong crowd watching Denmark beat host-nation Mexico (who beat Italy in the semi-finals) to raise the trophy. England player Chris Lockwood was just 15 years old at the time she was being flown out with her team to play in the cup.
Lockwood recalled to The Guardian: “Nothing prepared us for the crowds, the noise. It was amazing. We’d gone from playing on park pitches and suddenly we were running out in front of 80,000 people inside huge stadiums and being invited to a cocktail party at the British Embassy. It was an unknown world. It didn’t matter to the Mexicans that we were female, it was football.”
The appeal of Martini getting behind the sport is easy to understand in the context of Italy’s jetset crowd of the time. The Agnellis were busy going trans-continental from their hub in Turin, making sure everyone knew about the success of Fiat in the process. Martini wanted to do the same in their own little corner of Turin, but one man down in Rome wanted to beat them to the punch.
Giovanni Trabucco made headway by setting up a women’s football federation (one of two at the time) from his Rome capital headquarters, part of the many footballing bodies working women’s calcio into eventual recognition by the FIGC in 1986.
Trabucco was already galvanised by the fact that the first ever organized Roma woman’s team - ACF Roma - had won rival federation FICF’s Serie A league title in 1969.
That was the league’s second-ever season; Roma had done themselves justice after losing the first-ever Scudetto final to Genoa a year prior. Trabucco wanted to set up his own 14-team league in 1970 and did so, once again using his own personal funds, while proving a helping hand in pushing Roma legend Amadei into the national women’s Italy CT spot from ‘72 onwards. Amadei’s legacy today extends to the Campo Amedeo Amadei back in his local neighbourhood, south-east of Rome itself.
The pitch has played home to amateur men’s and women’s teams such as the Lupi Frascati - where former Roma captain Giuseppe Giannini works among the directorial staff - and Giada Greggi’s RES Roma side of this latter decade.
1980s - The Zenith of Women’s Calcio
Amadei would also oversee the start of players like Betty Vignotto with the Azzurre in his time. Vignotto would go on to set all kinds of records, including being the long-standing record goalscorer in all of women’s football until Mia Hamm surpassed her in 1999; Vignotto’s play inspired future Nazionale teammates like Caroline Morace and Betty Bavagnoli in Italy teams of the 1980s. It’s a golden era of calcio that women’s football is looking to get back to even today.
The women’s Mundialito tournaments of the eighties brought in sell-out crowds to Venice’s Jesolo stadium - albeit a 7,000 capacity stadium but still more than twice that of Rome’s Tre Fontane today - and the technical level of football played among the international teams of the era was arguably that notch above where Serie A femminile is right now.
Not only did the women’s teams show there was an audience and appetite for well-promoted football matches, but they agreed to RAI-televised training matches against men’s football teams to not back away from raising levels of competition inside women’s training whenever possible.
Today, Roma players like Elisa Bartoli cite that training with men’s teams as youth players was fundamental to her development and formation as a player. In the eighties, this player development was already happening among senior sides. Why has Italian women’s football stalled in the 30 years since?
“We definitely had a lot of top players in that era,” present-day Roma coach Betty Bavagnoli said to TuttoAsRoma this year. “Both Italian and foreign players. It was a time where we fought a ton of battles and brought home some huge results. Thinking of it now, I don’t have any doubts that the players of that era were pioneers for women’s football. When we had to travel with the national team and play teams much stronger than us, we realised we have a lot more to do to reach their level.”
“There was a huge physical difference between us and them. But we worked as hard as we could to close the gap and managed to do it in part, thanks to the talent of our own players. Unfortunately, Italy was always missing one thing in all that time: the genuine desire to put money into women’s football.”
‘We Sometimes Live A Better Life Than Our Male Colleagues’
Despite the pioneering of the eighties, it took until the 2010s for the FIGC - who assumed responsibility for organising the women’s national game from 1986 onward - to mimic German football and open up a federal system of youth development still growing around Italy today.
That federal system of training camps finally satisfied the talent pool of male and female kids wanting to play the game yet being passed over by a neglected window of opportunity.
In 2014, a Corriere della Sera feature claimed circa 12,000 women are playing calcio around the country every season. 3,000 of them were senior professionals that year in the loose sense of the word; playing ‘pro level’ in Italy still often means just getting your expenses reimbursed by the club and nothing more.
A further 8,000 women were youth players on the rise.
Some of those youth players have made it as Serie A professionals today. Pictured above are none other than Roma’s Annamaria Serturini and Martina Piemonte, celebrating as teenagers in the 2014 U-17 Women’s World Cup.
The Italian keeper in that squad, Carlotta Cartelli, spoke of that tournament to CdS: “We had our travel paid and [after the third/fourth place playoff that Italy won to finish third], they paid for our trip to the sea to celebrate. [The tournament] was emotional because there’s never more than 100 people in Italy to watch us, whereas there were 30,000 people in attendance [in Costa Rica].”
Serturini has gone on to be a squad member of the current 2019 Italy World Cup team, but you wonder if Bavagnoli told her or her teammates of the days when Italian crowds coming in their tens of thousands was very nearly a common-day reality; all it would have taken was sustained support from the few, not the many. Nonetheless, the stories of travelling and taking risks - from players like Cartelli in 2014 and Lockwood back in 1971 - show that you can lead a truly unforgettable journey all the same.
There’s a whole world happening outside the bubble of men’s football; that’s a theme over which Roma’s striker Piemonte played agent provocatrice in an interview last week.
“Yes we play in Serie A and World Cups,” Piemonte said, “but we are considered amateur players. We play purely for the passion, on super-normal wages. But I can assure you that we live a better life than our male colleagues.”
Is Piemonte completely tongue-in-cheek when making that claim? We can look at the melodrama surrounding the umpteenth Francesco Totti ‘will he won’t he say goodbye to the club’ saga and realise Piemonte’s speaking the truth in many ways. Men’s football players come across like they’re determined to find tragedy in their own story of success, and us football writers that cover those stories even more so. It rarely comes across like the ‘the good life’ is being lived among the millions - of euros and followers - behind careers like Totti.
That doesn’t mean women’s football players are looking to turn down money or a wider shirt-buying fanbase when the opportunity is there. But it reminds me of a truth I’ve known about football and sport all along even when I looked to deny it at the beginning of this season: popular demand doesn’t drive the coverage in the private circus of pro football.
It never did for the men’s game, so why did I let myself believe it would for the women’s?
A lot of fans tune in to see the highs of the sport, sure. But there’s a dark, truly fanatical side of us that sticks around the see stars fade after they’ve been built. How will they pick themselves up after their first fall? Who was the opponent that knocked them down? What stands in their way onto their new goals again? How do we even process our fanatical relationship with their highs and lows when it’s time to move on?
I’m betting that if Lockwood or Bavagnoli were driving around in top-notch sports car on huge wages in their era, those sell-out crowds at Jesolo and the Azteca stadium would be scrutinized in a very different light by footballing history and fandom.
Instead, because the players of women’s football weren’t paid back then, we record those games of the zenith era as amicable and nothing more. Yet they are the competitive levels by which the modern women’s game is aspiring to reach and surpass on the way to ‘the good life’ promised tomorrow.