With a new streamlined 10-team domestic league and full professionalization finally conferred upon their players, women's football in Italy is approaching a massive inflection point—the good kind. And what better way to kick that development into overdrive than for the nation's current golden generation to follow up their 2019 World Cup success with a similar (or better) run at this month's European Championships?
While they should have been content with simply qualifying for World Cup 2019—their first appearance in the big dance since 1999—the Azzurre were after more than just a mere participation trophy. They may have lacked household names like Alex Morgan, Lucy Bronze, or Marta. Still, manager Elena Bertolini cobbled together a squad featuring savvy veterans like Sara Gama and Elisa Bartoli while sprinkling in the best and brightest of Italy's U-23 set, including super-utility woman Aurora Galli, defender Lisa Boattin, and midfield maestro Manuela Giugliano, who was arguably Italy's standout performer that summer.
A stellar Dutch side ultimately upended Italy’s dream run three summers ago, but it was a signal of better days ahead. And those better days could start as soon as this week as the Azzurre prepare to kick off Euro 2022 against France in Rotherham on July 10th.
To prepare you for the biggest tournament of the summer, let’s take at the names and faces donning the colors of the House of Savoia as Italy looks to shake things up in England this month.
A 56-year-old Corregio native, Milena Bertolini's legacy in Italian football is beyond reproach. During her 17-year playing career as a defender for clubs as varied as Reggianna, Bologna, Modena, and Foroni, Bertolini won three Scudetti, one Serie B title, one Coppa Italia, and one Supercoppa Italiana.
After hanging up her boots in 2001, Bertolini cut her teeth as an assistant manager with Foroni, taking over the managerial reins in 2002. During her nearly two-decade-long stint as a club manager with Foroni, Reggiana, and Brescia, Bertolini laid claim to three more Scudetti, three Coppa Italias, and four Supercoppa titles and was thrice awarded Manager of the Year honors.
With such an impressive résumé at the club level, Bertolini was a natural choice to lead the Azzure, taking control of the national team in 2017, where she's remained ever since. In 55 competitive matches in charge of the Azzurre, Bertolini's squad has won an impressive 75% of their fixtures while maintaining an incredible +107 goal differential. For all her accomplishments as a player and manager, Bertolini was inducted into the Italian Football Hall of Fame in 2018.
Now that we have a grasp on the manager's bona fides let's look at the names and faces under her charge.
While the final 23-woman roster wasn't as Roman as we'd initially hoped, Bertolini's squad features a healthy mixture of veterans and a gaggle of youngsters, each looking to make a name for themselves as women's football takes center stage over the next several weeks.
Goalkeepers: Francesca Durante (Inter), Laura Giuliani (Milan), Katja Schroffenegger (Fiorentina)
Defenders: Elisa Bartoli (AS Roma), Valentina Bergamaschi (Milan), Lisa Boattin (Juventus), Lucia Di Guglielmo (AS Roma), Maria Luisa Filangeri (Sassuolo), Sara Gama (Juventus), Martina Lenzini (Juventus), Elena Linari (AS Roma)
Midfielders: Arianna Caruso (Juventus), Valentina Cernoia (Juventus), Aurora Galli (Everton), Manuela Giugliano (AS Roma), Martina Rosucci (Juventus), Flaminia Simonetti (Inter);
Forwards: Barbara Bonansea (Juventus), Agnese Bonfantini (Juventus), Valentina Giacinti (Fiorentina—for now), Cristiana Girelli (Juventus), Martina Piemonte (Milan), Daniela Sabatino (Fiorentina).
A rising star, our very own Manu will look to build on an incredibly impressive World Cup 2019 performance where she delighted fans with her jaw-dropping array of defense-splitting passes. Following her sterling run in France that summer, Roma moved quickly to bring the reigning league MVP to the capital, where she's continued her meteoric rise to stardom.
Sitting in the heart of Bertolini's midfield and flanked by the equally talented Cernoia and Caruso, Giugliano will be tasked with dictating and controlling the pace of play, distributing the ball from deep, linking play in the final third, and dissecting and disrupting the opposition's attacking moves. So, you know, no big deal. Fortunately for Italy, she's arguably the most talented midfielder the country has produced since a certain Andrea Pirlo was strutting his stuff for the Azzurri.
Juve's 32-year-old star striker may be facing her swan song on the international stage, but she definitely won't go quietly into that good night. While she had a bit of a down year at the club level, we're still talking about a striker who amassed a whopping 38 goals the prior two seasons. And with nine goals in the qualification round, Girelli has been as pivotal as ever for the Azzurre and will join forces with her club teammate Barbara Bonansea and either Valentina Bergamaschi or Valentina Giacinti to form one of the more potent frontlines in Euro 2022.
But we're talking about Italy after all, so we'd be remiss if we didn’t include a few defenders on this list.
Sara Gama & Elena Linari
The Juventus stalwart and unquestioned national team leader, Gama, recovered after a down 2020-2021 season to log 13 starts for the Old Lady this year. And much like Girelli, Gama didn't let a down year at the club level dampen her Azzurre spirits, as the 33-year-old made seven starts during the qualification rounds. She may have lost a step or two, but Italy won't go far without its spiritual leader.
But Gama alone does not a stout defense make. Fortunately for Bertolini, she has a ready-made successor to Gama in the form of Roma defender Elena Linari. Blessed with size, speed, and an innate sense of timing and space, Linari should be able to handle whatever Italy's Group D opponents can throw at her. The latter has quietly asserted herself as the best defender Italy has to offer, not to mention inheriting Gigi Buffon's role as the prima donna (in the literal sense of the word) of the Italian National Anthem.
Speaking of which, let's take a look at Italy's Group Stage opponents...
Cast into a group with 3rd ranked France, 17th ranked Iceland, and 19th ranked Belgium, 14th ranked Italy isn't exactly in the proverbial Group of Death, but they have a rather arduous path to the knockout rounds, particularly since they face tournament favorites France straight out the gate.
Matchday One: July 10th
France vs. Italy: 3 PM, New York Stadium, Rotherham
Matchday Two: July 14th
Italy vs. Iceland: 12 PM, Manchester City Academy Stadium, Manchester
Matchday Three: July 18th
Italy vs. Belgium: 3 PM, Manchester City Academy Stadium, Manchester
If Italy merely survives and advances out of the group stage, they would be pitted against the Group C winners on July 22nd. If they win Group D, they would face the Group C runners-up on July 23rd. And if, by some miracle, they make it all the way to the final, the Azzurre will have the distinct pleasure of playing for the title of European Champions at Wembley Stadium on July 31st—and we all remember what happened the last time an Italian team played in that hallowed ground.
The Measure of Success
Italy is no stranger to success on the European stage, having reached the final of Euro ‘93 and Euro ‘97, falling to Norway and Germany, respectively. And while they certainly have enough talent to upset the applecart in England this summer, that would require a bit of luck and nearly all 11 starters playing at their peak for an entire month. So what, then, would constitute success for Bertolini's bunch this summer?
France is the prohibitive favorite to win Group D. While it would be nice to assume Italy will be safely ensconced in second place, they haven't exactly steamrolled either Iceland (one win, one draw) or Belgium (they traded 2-1 victories during WC ‘19 qualifying). Hence, passage to the knockout rounds is far from assured.
However, after an impressive run to the quarterfinals in the 2019 World Cup, Italy was almost flawless in their Euro '22 qualification campaign, reeling off eight wins in ten matches while sporting a +22 goal differential. In that respect, we should, at minimum, expect Italy to be in the mix on Matchday Three when they face Belgium, where a spot in the knockout rounds will very likely be at stake (no offense, Iceland).
After that, it's anyone's guess. Assuming Italy finishes behind France in Group D and the Netherlands wins Group C, the Azzurre will have revenge on their mind as they face the Dutch side that bounced them from the last World Cup.
If they can pull off that monumental upset, it's all gravy—anything would be possible, and we may very well see an Italian upset at Wembley for the second straight summer.
Please stick with us as we follow Italy through Euro 2022, no matter how long they last, but in the meantime...
You know what time it is, Fratelli D’Italia!!