Italian game in crisis
Power struggles, legal action and strike threats
An extraordinary dispute has imperilled the rejuvenation of women’s football in Italy with the sport embroiled in a tug-ofwar between governing bodies that has threatened the league season.
The women’s game is caught in the middle of a power struggle between the Italian FA (Federazione Italiana Giuoco Calcio – FIGC) and the organisation responsible for amateur players (Lega Nazionale Dilettanti – LND), which has resulted in legal action and strike threats.
The crisis comes as the women’s game, after decades in the doldrums, had begun to revive, with the Azzurre qualifying for the 2019 Women’s World Cup – their first appearance this century. In the domestic game, Milan and Roma are poised to join Juventus and Fiorentina in fielding teams in the women’s Serie A.
At issue is who controls the women’s game. Hitherto played by amateurs, it has been controlled by the LND. However, the growth of the women’s game in Europe has encouraged the FIGC to look anew at the national team. And the arrival of clubs such as Juventus has prompted a desire to professionalise the sport – hence the federation’s decision in May to announce it would be assuming control of the upper tiers of the women’s game.
The federation was confident enough to put the television rights out to tender, but the move was met with resistance by the LND who successfully challenged the decision in the federation’s independent appeal court in July. FIGC has appealed to the national Olympic committee, which regulates Italian sport, but in the meantime the LND are back in charge – in theory at least.
In practice, the FIGC and the clubs appear to retain the whip hand. Strike action was mooted and the first casualty was the Italian SuperCopa between Juventus and Fiorentina, scheduled for August 25 but postponed “at the clubs’ request”. This followed a comment by Roberto Fabbricini of FICG that “if the SuperCopa should be postponed nobody would die”.
Fabbricini’s resistance was stiffened by a meeting with the big clubs and the players’ union, who stressed their desire to be run by the FIGC, in part perhaps as the latter intends to make it compulsory for men’s Serie A and Serie B clubs to run female teams.
LND president Cosimo Sibilia responded with talk of “fake news”, of litigation outside sports bodies and the claim that FIGC could have simply decreed the players could be professionals while leaving them under LND administration. Talks continued with a pressing need to find a settlement before the start of the domestic league season on September 15.
“On a human level I can understand the amateurs as they lose something as it is starting to grow, but the game is going in a new direction,” says Stefano Braghin, the head of women’s football at Juventus. “The professional clubs have joined the game and the amateur league is not ready for our needs and to work as we normally do. Sooner or later we will be under the federation and start the process to be professional in five years.”
At present players are only paid expenses with a maximum below € 400a-week, including match bonuses, during the season. As with all “amateur” sports down the years, there are some ways around these restrictions, such as subsidised accommodation.
At Juventus there is also the lure of full-time training at the club’s Vinovo facility, while younger players are offered private education. Juve have therefore managed to attract many of the best domestic players and some notable foreign ones, including England internationals Eni Aluko and Lianne Sanderson.
“However”, adds Braghin, “the huge players we cannot afford. I could not sit down with an Arsenal player.
“Eni made a life choice, more than football. In terms of pure salary we cannot afford the standard for this kind of player. Sanderson is another story because of her injury.”
Sanderson, who has been out for nearly two years with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, used the medical staff and facilities at Vinovo in return for an understanding that she would play for the club when fit.
Both players appear to have settled quickly and their experience will be important when Juventus begin a debut Champions League campaign against Brondby. It is a tricky but negotiable
“The game is going in a new direction. The professional clubs have joined the game and the amateur league is not ready for our needs... sooner or later we will be under the federation” Stefano Braghin, head of women’s football at Juventus
fixture and a lot easier than it might have been. The women’s Champions League is a knockout competition with seeding based on past club performances, so Italian clubs are rarely seeded.
Juventus were well beaten by Chelsea and Arsenal in pre-season and Braghin says: “We are starting from the beginning and we are aware it takes time, but when you are a club with our history the expectation is very high.
“In the domestic competition we would like to be top, in Europe it takes more time. We saw at Arsenal how far we are from this kind of football, but we would like to be in the first eight teams within the next three, four years.
“I think in Italy the potential is very huge. We are a football country, everyone plays football, the culture is very high. At the moment half the population cannot play, so we give them the chance”
After a strike threat three years ago, one of the concessions won by players was the creation of a fund to cover debts they were owed when a club went bankrupt. A few months earlier the head of the LND, Felice Belloli, had been forced out after allegedly stating: “That’s enough, we can’t always talk about giving money to this bunch of lesbians.”
Azzure coach Milena Bertolini said later: “I knew Belloli’s thoughts were Italy’s thoughts. Italians had the same feelings towards us, but bad things can lead to good things.”
Success...Italy coach Milena Bertolini (centre)
Signing...Eni Aluko with Stefano Braghin
understanding... Lianne Sanderson of juventus