Over the next several days, I have no doubt we'll be treated to a swarm of articles singing the praises of Milena Bertolini's Italy squad, and with good reason. Whatever plaudits one ascribes to them—determined, entertaining, talented, the pride of the peninsula—they're all accurate, each and every one of them. In our preview of Italy's World Cup march we billed the team as classically Italian: a strangling defense countered by an opportunistic attack; the kind of team that would gut it out and will their way to victory. Death by a thousand cuts rather than a swift blow.
We sold them short, well short.
In their first World Cup since 1999, Italy was much more than a team that simply won by frustrating their opponents. With moments of brilliance in front of goal from Barbara Bonansea, Cristiana Girelli, and Valentina Giacinti, bombing runs forward from Elisa Bartoli and Alia Guagni, and the super sub heroics of Aurora Galli, Italy's offense was among the most entertaining in the tournament. And when you tie that to the fierce and intuitive play of Sara Gama and Elena Linari at the back, not to mention Laura Giuliani's stellar performance in goal, Italy was one of the most complete teams in France.
So while we're all disappointed that their seemingly Hollywood ending was cut short, we can take some solace that they went down swinging against the Dutch, one of the best sides in the tournament and the defending European champions. Italy played with pride and passion, and what's more, they played for one another; this is a tightly bonded and talented team.
And it's the makeup of this team—a mixture of veterans in their late twenties and early thirties and a wave of younger talent—that should ensure a successful transition into the next phase of Italian football; moving past development and into contention. The experience they gained in France, and the unexpected success they tasted, should ensure Italy is a force to be reckoned with at Euro 2021 in England and the next World Cup in 2023, location TBD.
So, much as we did prior to France 2019, let's take a quick look at some of the Azzurre's key figures for what will hopefully be a successful decade to come for Italy.
Come Euro 2021, Italy stalwarts Cristiana Girelli, Barbara Bonansea, Sara Gama, Alia Guagni, Valentina Cernoia, Elisa Bartoli, and even the seldom-used Martina Rosucci (though she is recuperating from a serious injury) will all be in their early thirties and primed for one last shot at glory in a major international tournament in England 2021.
While none of these players are superstars on the order of Alex Morgan, Ada Hegerberg, or Sam Kerr, several of them, most notably Girelli and Bonansea, showed enough individual skill and creativity to remain game-changing forces at the highest level, which (as we've seen) can come in extremely handy in compressed tournaments like these. While the tactical expertise and tenacity provided by Bartoli, Cernoia, Gama, and Guagni will help Italy through the tough slogs they're sure to encounter in Euro 2021.
When we look at Italy's last major international success at the senior level, the 2006 World Cup triumph, we saw a similarly composed squad. With savvy Serie A vets in their late twenties and early thirties (Francesco Totti, Fabio Cannavaro, Gianluca Zambrotta, Mauro Camoranesi, and Marco Matterazzi among others), the Azzurri weren't rattled by surprisingly tough matches against the United States and Australia, nor were they phased when they ran up against the mighty Germans and French in the latter stages of the tournament.
The point being, with talented and still lively veterans the Azzurri were able to conquer the footballing world in ‘06, and with the experience they gained over the past month, not to mention their first taste of success on the international stage, Bartoli, Gama, Girelli and Bonansea should provide ample leadership for the Azzurre over the next Euro and World Cup cycle.
The serenity provided by those veterans will go a long way to whatever success Italy tastes over the next four years, but they're merely a part of the puzzle—you still need your lead horses, and Italy will have plenty of them.
Aurora Galli, Laura Giuliani, Manuela Giugliano, Valentina Giacinti, Valentia Bergamaschi, Annamaria Serturini, Elena Linari, and Lisa Boattin will all be at or near their primes during the 2021/2023 cycle and could emerge as genuine stars at any point during the next four years.
Giuliani already looks like one of the world's best keepers, while the performances of Galli, Linari, and Giacinti at France 2019 certainly portend bright futures. And what's more, Italy's prime talent is spread throughout the pitch. Giuliani and Linari will be the bedrock of Italy's defense going forward, Galli and Giacinti look like guaranteed Azzurre starters in attack for the next decade, while Giguliano, AC Milan's 21-year-old midfield maestro, has the makings of a world-beater.
Here's where I roll out the tired trope with continued investment in football, Italy should only get better, but it's true; Italy has already produced a tremendous amount of talent, and if this run through France 2019 serves as a lightning rod for greater interest and investment, then all the better.
However, Italy already has a stock of impressive youth talent, some of whom could force their way into roles with the national team over the next half-decade.
The Up and Comers
If you know me, you know that there are certain players I'll find any excuse to talk about. Regardless of the situation or context, if I can find a chance to interject my love for Francesco Totti, Mattia Destro, and even John Arne Riise, I will. And to that list, we can probably add Manuela Giguliano and Valentia Giacinti as well, but Agnese Bonfantini may have leap-frogged them all, and for good reason.
Bonfantini, 19-years-old, is one of many jewels in Italy's U-23 crown, and thanks to her impressive debut season with Roma, she's already earned her first handful of Italy caps. If Bonfantini continues her progression, she could join club teammate Annamaria Serturini on Italy's front line in the near future. Bonfantini profiles as an Alex Morgan-type of talent—a tall, swift and crafty attacker who can be deployed in a variety of roles—and has already taken a lead role at the youth level, even scoring a match-winner at the U23 level over the United States.
Joining Bonfantini among the ranks of up and comers are several other Roma prospects, including forward Martina Piemonte, midfielder Giada Greggi, jack of all trades attacker Flaminia Simonetti, fullback Angelica Soffia and winger/fullback Camilla Labate. Other standouts include Fiorentina forward Valery Vigliucci, Juventus midfielder Melissa Bellucci, Sassuolo defender Martina Lenzini, and Inter Milan midfielder Alice Regazzoli.
Counting on youth prospects to come good is always a dicey prospect, but even if a fraction of those names can lineup alongside the likes of Galli, Serturini, Giugliano, Boattin, and Valentina Bergamaschi, all of whom are 22-years-old or younger, Italy will be sitting pretty in the future.
The obvious and most logical step rests with the FIGC—making the players in Serie A Femminile full professionals. Without assurances that they will be fully supported and compensated, let alone their clubs existing from one year to the next, all the goodwill the Azzurre engendered this summer will go for naught. The league has already lost one top-flight team ahead of next season (Chievo) and with the rest of Europe's domestic leagues potentially leaving them in the dust, Italy cannot afford to take half-measures with their professional leagues.
And on that point, it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world if some of Italy's best players tested themselves at larger clubs. While the women's game isn’t yet blessed with parity (but then again, not many men's leagues are), the song remains the same; testing one's mettle in the Champions League is the best way to prove your worth. So, if the likes of Giugliano or Gacinti engineer a move to a larger European club like Lyon, Chelsea, or Barcelona, their careers, and by extension the Azzurre, should be the better for it.
Italy became the darlings of the World Cup this summer thanks to their infectious and entertaining style of play, but as we just outlined, there was tremendous substance to that flash. Italy's cupboards are well stocked, and if Milena Bertolini can master the recipe, the Azzurre will be feasting on the world before too long.