Long-time captain Sara Gama (R) has been cast aside by by Italy coach Milena Bertolini (Oli SCARFF)
Next week’s World Cup marks the dawn of a new era for Italy’s women with teenage Barcelona midfielder Giulia Dragoni the exciting face of a fresh chapter.
Long-time captain Sara Gama, 34, was left out of Milena Bertolini’s squad as the Italy coach made space for emerging talent.
Dragoni booked her spot on the plane to Australia and New Zealand after impressing on her debut aged 16 as a substitute in a recent goalless draw with Morocco.
The youngster is unlikely to start given the stiff competition in a midfield led by Manuela Giugliano, but she could well play a part as Italy try to show that they are better than their dismal display at Euro 2022.
Italy surprised by reaching the quarter-finals of the last World Cup — their first for two decades — but finished bottom of their group with one point at the Euro in England.
Dragoni was picked alongside another young gun in Fiorentina’s 19-year-old Emma Severini, in a squad which features 15 players from Juventus and newly crowned Italian champions Roma.
Dragoni, who played in mixed-sex football until she was 13 and earned herself the nickname “Little Messi”, is a star in the making.
After leaving Inter Milan in January she scored four goals in 10 appearances as Barcelona’s B team won the second-tier title, while also being part of the first-team squad which won the Champions League.
“Since September we’ve begun to try out new things and bring in new players,” said Bertolini.
“We don’t want to be restricted to just one style of play because the team needs to be able to adapt depending on who they are facing.”
Italy’s current standing in the women’s game is reflected in Bertolini’s stated objective for the World Cup — to get out of a group which also contains Sweden, Argentina and South Africa and see how things go from there.
– Exceeding expectations –
Italian women’s football has come a long way in the six years since Bertolini took charge of the national team but the country still lags behind European rivals England, Germany, France and Spain, never mind reigning world champions the United States.
One of the keys to Italy’s climb up to 16th in the world rankings was Gama, but she was dropped last month, her time as captain and spiritual leader of the national team seemingly over.
Gama has been more than just an important player over her 126 appearances for Italy — she pushed to get her country to take women’s football seriously.
She is vice-president of the Italian footballers’ association, qualified to work as a sporting director and a cultured presence capable of changing perceptions.
Before Italy reached the last eight of the last World Cup, women’s football was entirely amateur and either ignored or derided by the general public.
But exceeding expectations at France 2019, thanks largely to a backline led by Gama not conceding in open play, led to an audience with Italian president Sergio Mattarella and the women’s Serie A turning professional.
Gama’s removal from the squad angered the veteran centre-back but Bertolini insists that Italy are ready to move on with the next generation.
“There are young players who are developing and I believe there are players who are better suited to the type of football that I would like to take to the World Cup,” said Bertolini.
Italy begin their tournament against Argentina on July 24.