|Fifa Women’s World Cup 2019: Italy v Netherlands|
|Venue: Stade du Hainaut, Valenciennes Date: Saturday, 29 June, 14:00 BST|
Before this summer, Italy’s record domestic television Audience for a women’s football match was just 202,844 and that wasn’t even for a game involving the Azzurri – it was for 2011’s World Cup final between the USA and Japan.
But a peak of about 36 times that figure watched Italy’s group-stage meeting with Brazil at this year’s competition.
After qualifying for the finals for the first time in 20 years and then finishing top of Group C, surprise package Italy have defied pre-tournament expectations to reach Saturday’s quarter-final against the Netherlands.
And it’s not just on the pitch in France that Italian women’s football is finally enjoying a renaissance.
‘Our mission is for Italians to discover women’s football’
The national team’s long-awaited revival – 40 years since it was deemed a leading light in the sport when most other nations had rejected the women’s game – and the record 7.3 million domestic TV Audience, follows significant investment in women’s teams at club level by the giants of the men’s game in the country.
Juventus, Fiorentina, AC Milan and Roma finished in the top four of the Women’s Serie A last term, in a league that was dominated by Brescia and Verona as recently as 2015-16, when the more recognisable club brands were absent.
Inter Milan also acquired a women’s side in 2018, amid an upheaval at the top of Italy’s leagues that has helped give momentum to the national side.
Speaking after beating China in the last 16 on Tuesday, Italy boss Milena Bertolini said: “I really believe this Italian side has allowed the women’s game to break new ground back home.
“What the girls are currently achieving is very important for the women’s game in Italy as a whole. It’s massive, knowing that back home they are watching.
“We want to earn respect back home. Our mission is to try to have the Italian public discover the women’s game.”
‘We have extra energy and motivation’
What the Italian public have discovered is a side full of passion and skill, led by Juventus’ talismanic defender Sara Gama.
Her side’s stoppage-time winner over Australia and dazzling display in a 5-0 win over Jamaica earlier in the competition saw them progress to the knockout stages for the first time since 1991.
And now they stand one win away from their first major tournament semi-final since 1997, what is the key to this team’s improvements?
“This squad is made up of talented footballers,” Bertolini added. “We defend as a unit. The team all think about defending together.
“The forwards work their socks off and that has a knock-on effect all over the pitch.
“On top of that, they want Italians to see how great football is when played by women. This aspect helps you because it allows you to find that extra energy and motivation.”
Can the Azzurri contribute to ‘cultural change’?
While Saturday’s opponents the Netherlands have never reached this stage before, as reigning European champions they will be favourites to advance.
The Oranje eliminated Japan in the last 16 after pipping Canada to top Group E, but if Italy can upset the odds (kick-off 14:00 BST) the impact could be a lasting one back home.
“What’s great about this is that we’re almost able to convey this football of change – change in the sense it’s different to the football we’re used to seeing,” said Bertolini.
“It’s used to certain values: sportsmanship. These values can lead to a cultural change which is ongoing in Italy.
“Cultural changes are always very slow to come about. However, with this team and what they’re producing on the pitch, they’re able to break down some of those prejudices and barriers.
“They are enacting change and giving absolutely everything in every match we’re involved in.”
A boisterous, bouncing waiting crowd of Italy fans greeted the Azzurri’s coach as the squad arrived at their hotel before Saturday’s last-eight tie in Valenciennes, with some players visibly moved by the reception they received.
AC MIlan’s Valentina Giacinti added: “We can feel the support very strongly. We’re trying to make people proud.”