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Italy continues dream run in World Cup, fires up supporters with passionate play

Italians build on surge of support for women’s soccer that once seemed unattainable

MONTPELLIER, France — After not making the women’s World Cup for 20 years, Italy has made the most of its return to the big stage. And now it might just be this tournament’s darlings.

The Azzure beat China decisively 2-0 to earn their first World Cup knockout game win. Valentina Giacinti scored in the 15th minute and Aurora Galli scored in the 49th.

Although Stade de la Mosson wasn’t sold out, the announced crowd of 17,492 was boisterous. There were blue shirts and tri-color flags on all four sides, including a few sections above Italy’s bench that sung their lungs out from start to finish. You didn’t see them on TV because they were on the same side of the stadium as the cameras, but hopefully you heard them.

“It’s massively important for us to feel the support of the crowd here following us,” Italian coach Milena Bertolini said. “The crowd here and back home in Italy is our 12th man, or 12th woman if you will, because these are really top-level fixtures. Having all of that support really helps us a great deal on the pitch – to give even more, to go that extra mile.”

The scene is dramatically different not only from 1999, but from just four years ago. In May of 2015, the then-head of Italy’s amateur soccer governing body – which oversaw the women’s game at the time – protested a push for more funding by claiming that “we can’t always talk about giving money to this bunch of lesbians.”

That official was sacked a few weeks later, beginning a dramatic change in the nation’s soccer culture. Players started asserting themselves more, and won a victory when Italy’s national federation took over running women’s soccer from the amateur body.

The federation mandated that professional clubs have women’s operations. It was meant as a youth initiative at the start, but it has grown far beyond that. Big clubs such as Juventus, Fiorentina, AS Roma and AC Milan have women’s teams in Serie A,and Inter Milan earned promotion to the top flight this past season.

Italy’s media have done its part, too. Cable channel Sky Italia televised a league game of the week every Sunday this past season, and free-to-air Rai 1 – the nation’s biggest channel – is broadcasting Italy’s games at the World Cup along with Sky. The dramatic group stage finale against Brazil was watched by 7.325 million viewers, which is 33% of the country’s viewing public.

“We players feel the support of the fans from back home in Italy very strongly, even though we’re here in France,” forward Valentina Giacinti said, using the classic Italian phrase il tifo to refer to supporters. “We’re trying to make people proud, and we will continue to try and show that out there on the pitch in our next match.”

Why has this team captured its country’s imagination? Not just because it’s winning. The passion of Italy’s players has resonated deeply with a fan base that loves its sporting heroes to let it all out on the field. It starts with the players belting out the national anthem on the field, and keeps going through celebrations after the final whistle.

“They don’t surrender,” said sportswriter Sandro Bocchio, who covers the Italian national team and Juventus’ women’s team for Turin-based Tuttosport. “They are courageous, they struggle until the last minutes, they battle for the flag, for the blue shirt. In Italy this is appreciated every time.”

Bertolini has used the press conference podium as a bully pulpit throughout the World Cup, saluting her players for winning on the field and fighting for change off it. She spoke passionately on the subject again Tuesday.

“I really believe that this Italian women’s side has allowed the women’s game to break new ground back home,” she said. “We can see that from the viewing figures, from what we’re seeing in the press, and from all the messages of those back home who are writing to us. … I know that cultural change is always very slow to come about. However, this team with what they’re producing on the pitch, they are able to break down some of those prejudices and barriers, and they are enacting change, and that is the mission that the girls feel they have here in France.”

As for what’s coming up immediately, the quarterfinal against the Netherlands will be a big test. Bertolini is realistic about that. When asked how far she thinks Italy can go in the tournament, she answered, “I don’t know.”

“We’re giving absolutely everything in every match we’re involved in, and we know the further we go in the competition the higher the level will become,” she said. “As for what the level is [next], we’ll see out there on the pitch.”

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