You didn't have to be a Nobel laureate to weave together the loose strands of the Women's World Cup and the rise in prominence of European professional leagues into a tidy little narrative. With top clubs all over Europe attempting to replicate their traditional successes into women’s leagues, recognition and respect of women's football was slowly picking up steam, punctuated by the folks at France Football finally awarding a Ballon d’Or to the top female player of the year, Lyon's Ada Hegerberg. And as luck would have it, all this success and all this progress would take center stage at this summer's World Cup.
While Hegerberg took a principled stance and decided not to represent Norway, stars like Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Marta, Sam Kerr, Amandine Henry and Lieke Martens, among others, ensured the World Cup wasn't lacking for star power. With a solid foundation of burgeoning club teams, a stable of entertaining star players and the rapt attention of the footballing world, the 2019 World Cup had the potential to push the women's game to an even higher level.
For fans of the Italian game, the World Cup was a victory in and of itself. With a 20 year absence, the Azzurre's mere presence was seen as a step in the right direction for women's football in Italy. But then the tournament started and Italy proved themselves to be much more than a idle contestant. Not only did Italy win a group that featured powerhouses in Australia and Brazil, they defeated China in the knockout rounds, and advanced to the quarterfinals against the Netherlands, all while playing free-wheeling, attacking football.
With highlight performances from Cristiana Girelli, Barbara Bonansea, Valentina Giacinti and Aurora Galli, Italy were among the most exciting sides in the tournament, a development that did not go unnoticed at home. Throughout their run in France, the faces of the Azzurre donned the front pages of nearly every major paper on the peninsula while their heroics destroyed viewing records for women's football. The Azzurre's group stage match against Brazil drew an incredible seven million viewers across Rai and Sky Sport; all told, Italy averaged some four million viewers per match. (That same match pulled in 24 million sets of eye balls in Brazil, while nearly 50 million Americans had watched Alex Morgan's exploits through the group stages—Any way you slice it, those are incredible numbers and speak to the potential of women's football at the highest level.)
All of this success on the international stage followed what was arguably the most successful season in Serie A Femminile history, at least in terms wide-spread commitment and organization. The 2018-2019 season marked the first year in which the FIGC organized and ran both Serie A and Serie B, ending decades of multi-federation administration of women's football.
Going along with that, the 2018-2019 season marked the debut of AC Milan and AS Roma in Serie A Femminile. While the method of their entry into Serie A wasn't exactly romantic—they simply bought out the licenses of Brescia (who became Milan) and RES Roma (who became, you guessed it, Roma)—they joined the traditional men's clubs already competing in Serie a Femminile, most notably Fiorentina and Juventus, the latter of whom had just joined Serie A the prior season.
Coincidentally enough, the same women who powered Italy to the quarterfinals were the same ones who lit Serie A aflame this past season—Giacinti, Bonansea, and Girelli—giving Serie A some built-in promotional opportunities. Combine that with Inter Milan's promotion for 2019-2020, headlined by Regina Baresi (club captain, daughter of Giueseppe Baresi and national TV pundit), and Serie A Femminile is definitely on the up-swing, in terms of quality, respect and attention.
Then this happened,,,,
‼️ Comunicato ufficiale: a partire dall'1 luglio terminerà il rapporto tra l'@ACChievoVerona e il @ChievoValpoLive.— A.C. ChievoVerona (@ACChievoVerona) June 27, 2019
Leggi il comunicato sul nostro sito https://t.co/RPzHc7lGWh pic.twitter.com/k8e7G0CwXM
Right in the thick of the Azzurre's run through France, Chievo Verona announced that won't be fielding their women's team for the 2019-2020 season, presumably due to the financial fall out of the men's team getting relegated to Serie B for next season. Chievo's women's team weren't exactly a power house, but unlike their male counterparts, they avoided the drop by five points and were, if nothing else, a steady presence in the league.
Losing one top-flight team was bad but could be accepted as an isolated incident born from systemic financial issues, but Chievo's announcement was quickly and surprisingly followed up by this:
Atalanta Mozzanica, the female half of Atalanta Bergamo Calcio, announced they're scuppering their women's operation as well. Per the official release (roughly translated by Google, sorry), the club simply cannot afford it:
We find ourselves having to make a very painful decision...Our probable absence to the next championship is the result of a difficult decision on my part, but as we have repeated in these days many times it is not possible to continue as has been done until today: companies like ours cannot compete with the big ones,to survive it is necessary to have behind us a professional club that can guarantee our girls a future in women’s football, now more than ever, since the advent of professionalism in our world is given by many sources as imminent
The jenky translation makes it a bit tough to read between the lines, but it seems like the impending switch to full professional status (female players are not fully professional in Italy at present) is going to make running a women's team cost prohibitive for Atalanta, a team that finished fourth in Serie A, and likely stands to earn tens of millions of Euros thanks to their first ever appearance in the Champions League.
Again, given the paucity of information, we can only make educated guesses, but I can't help but greet that news with a haughty hmm... Upon further review, this broader release, via the Bergamo News, sheds a bit more light on the scenario: Atalanta BC, the club we know in men's Serie A, was merely a sponsor of Mozzanica and have withdrawn/ended that business arrangement, thereby making it difficult for them to compete in the upcoming Serie A Femminile campaign.
Just exactly how the league will replace Chievo and Atalanta remains a mystery: Will they simply promote the next two sides from Serie B (Zaccaria and Fortitudo Mozzecane)? Will they sell Chievo and Atalanta's now vacant rights to traditional men's teams, perhaps Napoli, Lazio or Sampdoria?
Whatever they decide, these two losses come at an inopportune time for women's football in Italy. Having their players exist in some sort of quasi-professional limbo status was bad enough, restricting what salaries they can offer to players was worse (and limited their ability to compete for talent), but recent events throughout the continent may damn Italy to second-citizen status already.
Over in Spain, Atletico Madrid, Barcelona and Real Madrid are in an arms race for talent, with the latter preparing to launch their first Galactica squad. Real Madrid, following the example set by the likes of Juve, Roma and Milan, have bought their way into the top flight and are reportedly planning a €2 million hunt for talent, eyeing the likes of Marta, Alex Morgan, Lieke Martens and Rose Lavelle, among others.
When taken with the news that the Premiership is preparing to take over the Women's Super League, England's top fight, from the FA (not to mention the promotion of Manchester United, Spurs and a fat £10 million sponsorship deal with Barclays) Italy are in danger (grave danger) of being left behind and squandering all the good-will the Azzurre inspired this summer.
With their competitors ramping up their women's leagues, both in scope and financial investment, Italy are literally losing teams from their top flight. How long before they start losing talent as well? The exploits of players like Giacinti, Bonansea, Girelli, Sara Gama, Laura Giuliani and Manuela Giugliano have not gone unnoticed, so who's to say if the likes of Madrid, Lyon, United or Barcelona come calling they'll be able to resist a fatter paycheck and a greater degree of respect?
The peninsula may have a peculiar set of rules for it’s women’s clubs, and while Italy's march through the quarterfinals of the World Cup was unexpected, it would have been impossible without the grassroots investment from small clubs like Brescia, Torres, Verona, Atalanta Mozzanica and even Fiorentina.
But now that the reins have been handed over to larger, more well-heeled clubs, it's time for Italy to get serious about Serie A. Half measures will not only see them fall behind their European counterparts, it could see a trail of talent leaving the league and the country altogether, erasing years of progress in process.
The Azzurre's near-miracle run through the World Cup proved that, despite systemic restrictions, Italy can produce top talent capable of competing with the world's best footballers.
To ignore the financial and personnel investments necessary to lift the quality of Italy's professional league would be to fail the past, present and future of women's football in Italy.
The future is bright, don't let it dim.