They have been hailed as the plucky underdogs of the Women’s World Cup, the surprise package of a tournament that has otherwise largely gone to script.
When Italy opened their campaign with a last-minute triumph over highly-fancied Australia, the result shocked many – not least Matildas fans who had expected to win comfortably. A comprehensive victory over Jamaica and a narrow loss to Brazil, via a lone penalty, saw the Italians top Group C. On Tuesday they easily saw off China, once a women’s football powerhouse.
For a team that hadn’t qualified for the World Cup since 1999 – making their return this month after two decades in the footballing wilderness – it was quite the achievement.
But perhaps we should not be so surprised by the success of Italy in France to date.
In recent years, Italian mega clubs have poured money into women’s football. Foremost among them has been Juventus; eight of 23 women in the Italian squad come from the Serie A-winning team. The correlation with success on the international stage is obvious.
“The biggest example is Italy,” said Holland’s Vivianne Miedema, who will face Italy in the quarter-final on Saturday. “They put a lot of money into Juventus and in a couple of other clubs. You see it directly on the World Cup
Led by wily coach Milena Bertolini – already an Italian football hall of fame inductee – Le Azzurre have combined the attacking abilities of Barbara Bonansea, Valentina Giacinti and Cristiana Girelli with an impenetrable defence. Italy conceded just four times in qualifying, and two of those came after they had already secured a ticket to the World Cup. In France, they have conceded just twice – both penalties.
On Saturday, this indefatigable backline will face their toughest test yet – the firepower of the Dutch. Bertolini is under no illusions about the task ahead. “I don’t know how far we can go in the tournament,” she said. “We are giving absolutely everything in every match – but we know that the further we go in the competition, the higher the level will become.”
If Bertolini’s charges can see off the Netherlands, it is not entirely fanciful to suggest that they could go all the way. Italy are on the “easier” side of the draw, avoiding whoever emerges victorious among heavyweight trio England, the United States and France until the final. Beating Holland remains a big “if”, and the winner of Sweden’s clash with Germany will pose a similarly demanding challenge in the semi-finals. But these Italians are daring to dream.
But no matter the result in Valenciennes on Saturday and possibly beyond, the Italian women have already achieved something far more important off the pitch. “I really believe that this Italian women’s side has allowed the women’s game to break new ground back home,” said Bertolini after the China win, in the wake of record television figures and comprehensive press coverage of the team.
That, in turn, is contributing to a broader societal shift. “I am very realistic – I know that cultural changes are always very slow to come about,” she continued. “However, this team – with what they are producing on the pitch, they are able to break-down some of those prejudices and barriers. And they are enacting change.
“That is the mission the girls feel they have here in France.”
A worthy goal indeed.
"I stand by the comments that I made … with the exception of the expletive."
Megan Rapinoe on saying she's "not going to the f–king White House" pic.twitter.com/r9K4IMkQ9W
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) June 27, 2019
Around the grounds
Ahead of their “clash of the titans” quarter-final against France, defending champions the United States found themselves embroiled in a political spat. Footage emerged of star midfielder Megan Rapinoe saying (some time ago) “I’m not going to the fucking White House” if she won the tournament. This, unsurprisingly, drew the ire of Donald Trump. At the pre-match press conference on Thursday, Rapinoe was defiant. “I stand by the comments that I made about not wanting to go to the White House with exception of the expletive,” she said. “My mom will be very upset about that.”
When the television camera hovered over a fan wearing an “it’s coming home” t-shirt on Thursday, as the Lionesses progressed to the semi-finals with a clinical win over Norway, there was a sense of déjà vu. The English women may well endure the same fate as their male counterparts in Russia last year with an exit from the final four, given they face the winner of France v USA.
England benefit from an extra day’s rest, and the mega quarter-final clash will surely sap the energy of whoever emerges victorious. But the English will be undoubted underdogs in the next round.
The Americans are heavy favourites for their Friday night quarter final, making a French upset – at 12/5 – worth a punt. There are no odds, sadly, on Rapinoe further antagonising Trump.
Of all the remaining teams at the tournament, Italy are the least favoured at 25/1. We can dream, right? After demolishing the Norwegians, England are shaping up as a top contender. At 4/1 they still provide reasonable value, notwithstanding the difficult challenge they face next.