Playing it fair and nice

Playing it fair and nice

Football : Italian club Fiorentina has taken a small but important step towards development of women's football

Playing it fair and nice

In England, many top football clubs, including Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool, operate a women’s team alongside their more famous men’s team.

In Spain, teams like Barcelona, Athletic Bilbao, Atlético Madrid and Espanyol do the same. In France, Paris St-Germain, Lyon, Montpelier and St-Étienne are top-division clubs that also field professional women’s teams, while in Germany the group includes Bayern Munich, Wolfsburg, Bayer Leverkusen and Hoffenheim.

In Italy, the number of clubs with teams of both sexes playing in Serie A — the league that includes famed organizations such as AC Milan, Inter Milan, Juventus and Roma — is much smaller –– one.

That club, Fiorentina, is well aware of its position as an outlier. But here, in the heart of Tuscany, everyone who is part of this nascent women’s team — from players to coaches to executives — hopes that it might be the beginning of a long overdue change in the development of women’s football in Italy, which has fallen significantly out of step with other top football countries in Europe.

“In Italy, people love football, but everybody thinks that football is only for men — they think it is a macho sport,” Sandro Mencucci, the executive managing director of Fiorentina and a driving force behind the women’s team, said in a recent interview. “Here, we know we are not typical. We think football is for everyone.”

To be fair, Italian Football Federation officials have not altogether ignored the growing women’s game; participation rates for girls in Italy have increased significantly in recent years because of a rule requiring clubs to register more female youth players. But the resources committed to the women’s game overall are comparatively tiny.

 According to the most recent annual report done by UEFA, European football’s governing body, the Italian federation allocated a budget of three million euros (about $3.4 million) to women’s football — about 7 million euros less than France’s budget, and only a sixth of England’s outlay. The Netherlands, which has about 43 million fewer people than Italy, has a women’s football budget that is one million euros larger; Norway, whose population is about a tenth the size of Italy’s, has a women’s football budget that is nearly twice as big.

“At the moment, I believe that in football, possibly, the situation is even worse than in other sports and in the overall society,” said Giorgia Giovannetti, a professor in economics at the University of Florence who has studied gender equality in the workplace. “It is a field where sexism still prevails.”

A spokeswoman for Italy’s national football federation declined to answer specific questions about women’s football, writing in an email that all information about the game was available on the federation’s website.

“We are still far behind in Italy on many social progresses,” said Patrizia Panico, a veteran of Italy’s women’s national team since the 1990s who remains, at 41, a top player for Fiorentina. “Obviously this movement could have some acceleration if main institutions took a stance on female football as well, but so far it is just Fiorentina. Will others follow? We don’t know.”

The growth of women’s football is an issue that has increasingly received more attention globally, with FIFA, world football’s governing body, increasing its financial investment as well as pushing national associations to make it more of a priority.

Many of Fiorentina’s trappings are still modest. The women’s team does not play games at the Stadio Artemio Franchi (which has a capacity of about 47,000), competing instead at smaller stadiums on the outskirts of town.

Practices are at local fields, too, and after one recent training session — held on an artificial-turf field that had a view of an ancient apartment building — the Fiorentina players had to hustle off at an appointed time to make way for a youth team.

Still, the changes from last season, when the team was independent, are stark. Fiorentina’s players receive medical care from club doctors and treatment from club trainers. There is a dedicated team manager and press officer. Sauro Fattori, the coach, has increased his staff and no longer is responsible for bringing football balls and other equipment to practice.

“Last year we had to wash our own uniforms,” said Giulia Orlandi, the team’s captain. “This season, we are in the same division, playing the same teams, but there is much more of a focus on helping us do our jobs well.”

So far, the Fiorentina players have done well. The team beat AGSM Verona, 3-1, two weeks ago and is tied for first place in the league. Still, there has been little public momentum for other top clubs to follow Fiorentina’s lead. Giovannetti, the professor, said there were still significant cultural obstacles; she cited a recent study by the European Institute for Gender Equality that found Italy to be near the bottom, and well below the continental average, in a wide variety of areas related to equality for men and women.
Italy “is still far from reaching satisfactory results” in this area, she said, adding that it is critical to change “the mentality of both men and women.”

Mencucci, the Fiorentina executive, acknowledged that the rest of the Italian league would probably watch to see how his club’s commitment to women’s football is received. Before launching the team, Fiorentina officials spent time examining the organization of other top clubs, including several in the top American league, the National Women’s Soccerr League, where at least three teams are affiliated with MLF franchises.

The goal, Mencucci said, is someday to reach the heights of Lyon, in France, where the club’s president recently told Mencucci that it is easier for him to find sponsorship for his women’s team — which is a perpetual European juggernaut — than for the men’s team.
That kind of success may be far off, but there is no question that Fiorentina is ambitious. The club would be in favor, Mencucci said, of an increased salary cap for women’s teams as well as new rules in Serie A that would require all clubs that want to be licensed by the national federation to also field a female team.

These would be significant changes, of course, but then that is the point.
“In Italy, we are behind,” Mencucci said. “We need to make big steps. Not little steps. Big ones.”