In June of 2019, I was in rural Italy visiting family during the Women’s World Cup. We didn’t have a TV, so on game nights, we headed into town to sit in the back of a bar during a historic heatwave to watch.
During their Round of 16 match against China, we sat alone in the bar and watched Le Azzurre. Slowly but surely, the bar started to fill up with Italians who saw football on TV, but were confused. Wasn’t the World Cup in 2018? “No, that was the men,” we explained, expecting subsequent indifference. But instead, people pulled up a chair with us, and together we cheered on Le Azzurre to a 2-0 win and an historic ticket to the quarter-finals. It was pure magic.
Fast forward to 2022
For the first time ever, the UEFA Women’s Euro would be available to watch in Italy on public television. Rai 1, one of Italy’s biggest networks, would be showing the Italian games - and the country was ready to watch.
During this tournament, I again found myself in Italy. But this time, we didn’t have to venture into bars and watch games alone. Friends invited us over to watch, planning their evenings around Le Azzurre and getting excited to cheer on their women’s team.
Football fans around the country who might have never watched Le Azzurre tuned in to watch their team take on France, a notorious European rival of both the men’s and women’s side. From a television perspective, the night was a resounding success. According to FIGC, over 2.64 million people tuned into Rai 1 to watch the match, not even accounting for those who watched on Sky Sports or other streaming services.
What should have been a night celebrating a momentous step forward for women’s soccer in Italy quickly turned sour. Le Azzurre were thrashed by France, losing 5-1 with a lone goal for the Italians coming from AC Milan’s Martina Piemonte.
The superstars who wowed the world at the 2019 Women’s World Cup, like Barbara Bonansea or Sara Gama of Juventus, might as well not have been on the field. After an early chance for Bonansea in the 7th minute, the Italian attack would see very little success, and the defense completely collapsed.
The 5-1 thrashing by France was followed by a 1-1 tie with Iceland, giving the Italians hope of making it through to the next stage. With a win against Belgium, provided France beat Iceland, Le Azzurre could reset and continue their hopes of following their male counterparts to a Euro title.
Unfortunately for Italy, a 1-0 loss against Belgium put them dead least in Group D, and ended their Euro campaign. In a group where they were widely considered a favorite to go through, perhaps second to the eventual group winner France, Le Azzurre put on a lackluster performance and failed to recapture the magic of the 2019 World Cup run that launched them into the spotlight of international football.
Looking to the future
Italian football fans are no strangers to disappointment. For the second time in a row, the men’s side has failed to qualify for the World Cup. Despite this, pride in their national team remains strong, and their women’s team should be no different.
In fact, in the days leading up to Euro 2022, much of the conversation I encountered in the country was not that people expected the team to win, but rather discussions about how far women’s football has come. Some of the questions I was asked included, “did you know that Serie A Femminile will be pro this year?” Or, “did you see that AC Milan signed Kosovare Asllani?”
Even after their disastrous performance against France, the people I encountered didn’t give up on Le Azzurre. They tuned in to watch them tie against Iceland, and stayed with their team in their final loss against Belgium.
“We lost a game we didn’t deserve to lose,” commented Italian manager Milena Bertolini after the match. “This evening, the girls gave everything they had, we deserved something more. We were probably just missing a bit of calmness, but the girls played and they played well. It’s an important experience for us that will make us stronger and better. We now turn the page looking to not repeat the same mistakes, analyzing what we did and didn’t do well”.
There will be plenty of post-mortems in the coming days on what went wrong, a question that Coach Bertolini will be asking herself for some time. Was it the thrashing from France that made Italy unable to dust themselves off? Was the team too reliant on an older squad of players towards the end of their careers? Perhaps it was too much pressure for the supposed “dark horse” of this year’s tournaments. Whatever the reason was, one thing is for certain - Italy should not give up on Le Azzurre, and neither should you.