MONTPELLIER, France (Reuters) - Italy’s women have gone some way to restoring pride among the country’s football fans after reaching the World Cup quarter-finals following a series of failures by the men’s team.
Milena Bertolini’s side beat China 2-0 to make it through to the last eight in France, an achievement that the men’s team have not matched since they won the World Cup in 2006.
The Azzurri failed to qualify for the 2018 men’s World Cup after going out in the group stage in 2010 and 2014.
“It’s an outstandingly result for our national team and for Italian football as a whole, not just for the women,” Italian federation president Gabriele Gravina said.
“Reaching the quarter-finals with another impressive performance is the best we could have expected.”
Italy’s performance in France is all the more surprising given the women’s team had not featured in the World Cup in 20 years and had only reached the last eight once, at the inaugural tournament in 1991.
In France, they have been clinical, basing their game on a solid defence and a killer instinct up front. They are also motivated by the chance of attracting new fans to the women’s game.
“This squad is made up of girls who have a lot of quality. They are good footballers and they’re performing well here because of that,” Bertolini told a news conference after they beat China.
“But there’s a further aspect. They have a mission. Their mission is to try and have the Italian public discover and appreciate the women’s game.
“This aspect helps you because it allows you to find that extra energy and motivation. I really believe this side has allowed the women’s game to break new ground back home. We can see that from the viewing figures, what we see in the press and from the messages we receive from back home.”
Italy are still far from being tournament favourites, but they believe they have made groundbreaking progress in changing the opinions of fans back home.
“I know cultural changes take a lot of time. But this team are able to break down some of those prejudices and they are enacting change and that’s their mission,” said Bertolini, who spent over a decade coaching at Reggiana, Verona and Brescia before taking over as national team boss in 2017.
“I knew all of these players as I coached a number of them and came up against several of them as well,” she explained.
“I knew they were technically and tactically-gifted players. All we’ve done is try and make them realise they were talented and that they do have a lot of ability.”
Italy will next face European champions the Netherlands or Japan.
Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Toby Davis