The Women (and Man) Behind Florence’s Soccer Success Story

Throughout my life, I have had several feminist heroes— people who have stood up for gender equality in different ways. Now I have a new one, and you might be surprised to learn that he is a man in the macho field of Italian professional soccer. He is Sandro Mencucci, the executive managing director of the Fiorentina, which is the top division professional soccer club of Florence. And he is inspiring a generation of girls.

If you’ve been to Florence, it’s hard to miss the purple jerseys for sale at street vendor booths around town. The Fiorentina is a successful and popular mens soccer club, up among other famed Italian clubs like A.C. Milan, Inter Milan, Juventus and Roma. What makes the Fiorentina stand out among its peers is that it aspires to bring Italy into the modern age. While the rest of Europe and the US support top women’s professional soccer programs, in Italy only one top division club has a women’s program- the Fiorentina. And compared to its European neighbors, even much smaller countries, the money budgeted for women by Italy’s professional soccer league is tiny. Mencucci and his Fiorentina women hope to be the leaders of change.

2017 was only the Fiorentina Women’s second season, and so far so good. They built the team by merging with a local women’s club team based in Florence. The brand new Fiorentina soared to the top of their league (the Calcio Feminile Italiano) with a win on May 6th over a team from Tavagnacco. At least, this is what I think happened, since it is difficult to find English-language news of this momentous event.

The Fiorentina Women still have a ways to go. During this past season, they played at small stadiums on Florence’s outskirts, holding about 1,000 fans, rather than the main stadium, the Stadio Franchi, which holds up to 47,000 for Fiorentina men’s games. (By the way, the men unfortunately did not have a great season). A petition on change.org circulated leading up to the final women’s game, imploring the Mayor of Florence to hold the game at the big stadium. Ultimately the decision was made to do so. Tickets were sold for 1 euro each and 8,000 adoring fans were present for the purple team’s victory. Next, they look to the Coppa Italia quarter finals coming up later this month.

The seemingly modest accomplishments mentioned above are more impactful that one might think. The Italian soccer community has not failed to notice these women. As of last month, at least 5 other top division Italian pro teams are looking into starting a women’s program. The fans are devoted and the players are starting to be recognized around town. As you might imagine, young girls all over Italy are dreaming big. Enrollment in girls’ soccer programs is way up. This is a major goal, according to Mencucci. He has commented publicly that increasing female participation in soccer at all levels “will only happen through investment from professional clubs and to that end things are starting to change for the positive.” You go, guy.

As I mentioned, press coverage of the Fiorentina Women was a little hard to find. But I did find a February 2016 New York Times article about the team. Mencucci, with a very matter-of-fact attitude, is driven to using his and the club’s power to bring women into the picture for this sport that is so wildly popular and lucrative in Italy. He says that the Fiorentina club would be in favor of an increased salary cap for women’s teams, as well as new rules for the top division to require each club in Italy’s national federation to field a women’s team. “In Italy, we are behind,” he said. “We need to make big steps. Not little steps. Big ones.”

That melts this soccer mom’s heart. Thank you, my new feminist hero.

 

 

(Here’s my player)