ROME: They missed out on the men’s World Cup in Russia last year, but the good news for fans in countries from Italy to China and Scotland is that they will be present at the women’s tournament in France in June and July.
In football-mad Italy, who hadn’t missed the men’s tournament since 1958, the presence of the “Azzurre” should be great news. For the women, it is a first World Cup appearance since 1999. But not everyone seems so impressed.
“Ah girls, go and play at the World Cup, but do not talk tactics,” wrote Inter Milan captain Regina Baresi – daughter and niece of two great Italian players, Giuseppe and Franco – in a recent tweet.
It was a sarcastic reference to controversial comments by Fulvio Collovati, a member of Italy’s 1982 World Cup-winning side and now a pundit with state broadcaster RAI.
“When I hear a woman speak about tactics it turns my stomach,” he said, adding that “a woman doesn’t understand like a man.” He was suspended by the channel as a result.
In an interview with AFP just before Collovati’s outburst, the Italy women’s team coach, Milena Bertolini, said this year’s World Cup was “an important opportunity” for the game’s development in the country.
“It can help little girls, as well as all Italians, understand how normal it is for girls to play football,” she remarked.
There are only around 23,000 registered female players in Italy, compared to over 200,000 in Germany and over 100,000 in England.
Italy’s achievement in qualifying, therefore, deserves to be hailed, especially coming so soon after the men’s failure to do so.
“Of course, we benefited from that, in terms of media interest,” said Bertolini.
“I am sorry that the boys were not at the World Cup. It was a defeat for all Italian football, but the girls probably drew extra strength and motivation by being able to say ‘look, we are here, we have done something great’.”
Debut for Scotland
Scotland has also achieved something great, qualifying for the women’s World Cup for the first time, just two years after making it to a debut European Championship.
There is a certain sense of destiny with Scotland featuring at a World Cup on French soil – the men’s team have not been back to a major tournament since the 1998 tournament in France.
Former Aberdeen and Borussia Dortmund striker Scott Booth was part of Scotland’s squad then and is now coach of Glasgow City, the dominant women’s club in the country who have won the last 12 domestic titles.
In a nation where infrastructure is often poor and clubs are cash-strapped in the men’s game, it is not easy for the women. But things are improving, with leading men’s clubs like Celtic investing more and more in women’s teams.
“The whole thing surrounding women’s football has improved and become a much bigger thing over the last three, four years,” Booth told AFP.
“Every season there is another major club that is bringing out a women’s version of their side, and I think that has really helped.”
It is the same in Italy, with Juventus, AC Milan and Roma recently joining the women’s Serie A.
“That has been fundamental because, in terms of media interest, people now talk about women’s football,” says Bertolini. “It existed before, but nobody talked about it.”
“There are more resources, and young Italian girls can play in a professional environment and develop their talent.”
China: Need ‘true backing’
The question is different in China, where the women – World Cup runners-up in 1999 – have always performed far better than the men.
Despite that, interest in them is limited, much to the frustration of Wang Shuang, the Asian women’s player of the year.
Wang, of Paris Saint-Germain, posted on China’s popular Weibo social media platform calling for more Chinese support for the country’s female footballers.
“The Chinese women’s football team needs true backing, not just lip service,” said Tencent Sports in support of Wang.
It is a big issue in Italy too, and Bertolini knows the stakes.
“If we play well and win, get to the last 16, I think that will provide an impetus and lots of girls will want to get involved.”