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Alia Guagni And The Tragedy of Women’s Football in Italy

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Alia Guagni had to leave Fiorentina, the team of her heart, in order to achieve everything that she’s wanted to accomplish as a player. It’s a tragedy in many acts and one that should have been prevented.

© Ettore Griffoni | Dreamstime.com

When I first heard the news of Alia Guagni’s departure from Fiorentina, I, like many other people, was shocked by this.

I had just woken up from an early morning nap, with the fatigue being caused by a combination of work and caused by battling the lingering symptoms of being injured for nearly four months.

When I woke up, it felt like I was still dreaming. After all, is there any other way to feel about news like this?

Alia Guagni, co-captain of the Azzurre, captain of the Viola, has announced that she would be leaving the team.

More importantly, one of the best players Italy has ever produced has left the country. She would also be leaving for Atlético Madrid, one year after she refuted an offer from their crosstown rivals, Real Madrid.

It is an indictment of the state of women’s football in Italy if there ever was one.

Her departure was shocking for many reasons but the main reason why is because Fiorentina lost their bandiera. We all had romantic notions of her becoming their version of Maldini, Bergomi, and Totti, i.e. the one-club players who became emblematic of the very clubs they played for.

More appropriately, we all had romantic notions of becoming like Giancarlo Antognoni, the Viola legend who stayed with the team at the height of his playing career.

However, real-life often intrudes on our dreams and prevents them from happening. It also downright destroys them too.

Why She Had To Go

If you delve into environmentalism, then you know that there are several healthy indicators of an ecosystem. Take, for example, waterbirds. The reason why they are seen as indicators is that they exhibit conspicuous and meaningful responses to the changes around them. Herons are seen as barometers of an ecosystem and if the water of the said environment becomes polluted, then they leave.

In this case, Guagni is the bird that has flown the coop.

Italian football is infamous for the rotten aspects that permeate the game, and some of the pollution has, unfortunately, seeped over into the women’s game.

A lot of the blame falls on the FIGC. The federation likes to view itself as a cavalcade of heroes, who - out of the selflessness of their own hearts - have decided to help these women in their quest to become the best players they can possibly be.

Though if one is being honest here, they’ve actually been the women’s biggest hindrances more than anything else.

Whatever successes the Italian women have had in football have come from their own volition. They’ve had to overcome several obstacles, ranging from being underfunded, having to endure several forms of bigotry, to being downright ignored.

The Azzurre are the heroines of their own story. They are the ones who dipped their quills in the ink and wrote their name into the stars. They were the ones who grabbed our attention during the last World Cup and set the wheels of change in motion.

Though the women will finally become professionals in 2022, one can hardly blame a player if they don’t want to stick around and wait for change to happen.

The lack of professionalism for Serie A Femminile has affected the players in so many different ways.

For starters, the fact that the players are amateurs has prevented the women from being able to file for unemployment. Under Italian law, only ‘professionals’ can file for unemployment. For many of these players, the only assistance that is available to them are €600 bonuses that have been given to them by the Italian government.

€600 vanishes quickly, especially when you got bills to pay. This is one of the many problems of a system that is in desperate need of reform. It is hard for players to flourish under these circumstances, so one shouldn’t be surprised if they leave. While Guagni herself might not have had to worry about things like filing for unemployment, the detrimental aspects of this system will affect her in other ways.

Lisa Guglielmi

Wanting To Be Seen

Being a big fish in the pond of Serie A Femminile meant that Guagni could only be seen by those who had access to that pond. However, for everyone else, it meant not being able to see her.

Visibility for the league is limited due to the way that it is structured. It’s hard to watch Serie A Femminile games, as you have to go through a veritable obstacle course to see them. In order to watch the league, you have to have several subscriptions and go sleuthing through social media for links and that doesn’t help either. While the Liga Iberdrola has its own issues with visibility (as there is no single platform to stream the games, which makes them hard to watch), the players of the league can be seen in other ways. Teams like Barcelona and Atlético making deep runs in the Champions League allows the players to be seen, especially if they stream those games too.

The UWCL final has also been streamed on outlets that devote most of their coverage to the men’s game as well.

Visibility is not solely limited to streaming, as social media allows players to be seen as well. The women’s players who play for clubs affiliated with men’s teams will also be seen when the men’s social media accounts make posts about their women’s teams.

They also command the eyes of the audiences affiliated with those teams. When Atlético plays Real Madrid for the first-ever Derbi Madrileño for the women, news of the match has the potential to reach hundreds of millions of followers.

This is the type of reach and visibility that is not possible in Italy at the moment.

So essentially, Guagni is also leaving so she can be seen.

Giorgio Abondio (one of her agents) recently gave an interview to Labaroviola where he explained why Guagni left Florence. In his words, she didn’t leave because of money.

Rather, it was the chance to play in a semi-professional environment that inspired her to leave.

Abondio also stated that Guagni didn’t want to leave too. That was evident by the number of tears she cried when she announced her farewell.

The cynic would say that those are crocodile tears and that she’s actually not sad to go. The cynic also needs to realize that sometimes, people are being sincere and they are genuinely sad they have to go.

Abondio also said that Guagni would eventually return to Fiorentina too. She will either return as a player or as a manager. Either way, the Viola can take comfort in knowing that she will come back to them someday.

For now, however, they will have to get used to the fact that she’s gone.

The Folly of Ascribing False Motives

Whenever a player who has been an integral part of your club leaves, people immediately start speculating as to why. Unfortunately, in her case, a few of the Viola faithful started slinging poisoned darts her way.

‘She’s leaving for more money.’

‘A bandiera,’ they said, in a tone that was drenched with derisive sarcasm.

First of all, it is true that she is leaving to make more money. It would be absolute folly to say that is her sole motivation, however. Women’s footballers get paid far less than their male counterparts do. Therefore, the implication that she has left for the love of mammon doesn’t make any sense. It’s more like she’s leaving so she can actually get paid.

Since Serie A Femminile is an amateur league, the players are not allowed to make more than €30,000 a year.

Unfortunately, only a chosen few get to make an annual wage of €30,000. The rest are just barely getting by.

The league’s players make around €60 per day for up to five days per week during a season, plus a €77.47 performance bonus for matches (The Local).

In Spain, the players can earn far more than this. Barcelona Femení, for example, have some of the highest-earning players in the world. The semi-professional status of the Primera Iberdrola also gives them basic rights and protections that Serie A Femminile doesn’t have.

One example of this is the fact that the Liga Iberdrola has a minimum salary of €16,000. Serie A Femminile has no such minimum requirement. In Spain, the players have guaranteed maternity leave or illness and injury protection. The full-time players also receive pensions. The players also have contracts that are binding and that actually protects them.

Serie A Femminile contracts are more like ‘economic agreements’, and they are only binding in Italy. They also don’t last for more than one year. Most of the teams can’t afford other expenses for their players, such as paying them pensions. (The only exception to the rule is AC Milan.)

Then, there is also the issue of infrastructure. Some of the teams of the Primera División even have better training facilities than some of the men’s teams of Serie A do. The number of heart eyes Guagni makes in her Instagram stories when she’s training at the Wanda Alcalá are indicative of this. It’s also coming from someone who, prior to then, didn’t even have a sports center to train in.

With this in mind, Guagni’s departure should not be seen as a symptom of avarice. Rather, it’s more about her leaving to get all of the basic benefits that she can’t get in Italy.

As Giulia Orlandi, her former teammate put it:

“There are journeys that must be taken. If Alia wanted to experience professionalism, the only way to do so was to leave. This choice was not due to moments or things that went wrong. She is a girl that has achieved a lot, and won a lot with her team, Fiorentina, and became an icon of her city. She only lacked professionalism. Who better than Atlético Madrid to give her such an experience right now? Here, we are not talking about money or anything else, if not the possibility of living a new experience. In Italy, we are talking about professionalism in two years’ time and we do not even know what it will be like. In Spain they are [already professionals] and it is for a lifetime.”

Orlandi also retired from football late last year, with her retirement based on the fact that she had to choose between work and pursuing her passion.

In the end, work won out. It’s a choice many of the women’s players have had to make, and it is not fair for them.

Sadly, this is a phenomenon that happens in both Italy and Spain. And though the Liga Iberdrola is more advanced than Serie A Femminile is, the players in Spain are fighting their own battles too.

The Fight For Professionalism Takes New Ground

The only mistake that Orlandi made in her defense of Guagni is saying that the players in Spain are professionals.

They are, not, in fact, professionals. They are, instead, semi-professionals.

Although the RFEF (Royal Spanish Football Federation) had declared that the Liga Iberdrola was a ‘professional’ league, it is professional in name only. Rather than making the players professionals, they chose to invent a name for them instead.

It’s like giving someone the title of a ‘dame’ or a ‘sir’ without the actual knighthood.

Spanish writer Andrea Menéndez Faya put it best when she said, “calling it a ‘Professional League’ is the same as calling it ‘Pro League’, an ‘Elite League’ [...]. It is a surname. A surname that looks good. It is not professional. And it won’t be until [Irene Lozano] makes it professional.”

Lozano is the Secretary of State for Sports of Spain. She is also the one who will have the final say over whether the league will become a professional league.

As it stands, the players of La Liga Iberdrola are still not, in fact, professionals. In an effort to change this, the players have launched a campaign called the #LigaProfesionalFemenina. It is the springboard that they’ll use to convince the Spanish authorities to let them obtain that status.

And just like she has done in Italy, Guagni can help the women in Spain in their fight to become professionals as well.

The Magnitude of The Loss

It’s hard to quantify just how much losing Alia will hurt Fiorentina. Fiorentina not only lost their best player, but they lost quite possibly, Italy’s best player as well.

There is no one in Italy who can replicate everything she does. Hell, there are very few players in the world who can do what she does. She is a complete player, the Platonic ideal of a defender, whose positioning, sense of awareness, timing, speed, ability to read the game and cross the ball are simply unrivaled. She is irreplaceable.

Losing Alia is like losing Batistuta or Antognoni during the prime of their careers. Florence lost a player who was more than that, as she was a symbol of the city. She was a daughter of Florence and a Florentine herself. She was also very proud of her city and a fierce protector of her domain. No more was that evident than with the way she defended it on the pitch by playing with bravery, determination, and heart.

She is a signifier of all things Florentine, and one that is almost transcendent in terms of symbolism. Guagni will not, however, receive the deification that most transcendent signifiers receive. She will not do so because that sort of adoration is usually reserved for the men. The contributions of the women aren’t recognized in the same way.

While Guagni may not receive the deification or even the statues that Batistuta got, she should be celebrated in her own right. After all, she was the captain of a team that brought a Scudetto, two Coppe Italia, and a Supercoppa to Firenze. She was Fiorentina through and through, and she wore the captain’s armband with pride. (She also inherited that armband from Giulia Orlandi.)

And who could forget her fantastic performances during the Women’s World Cup? Alia, along with the rest of the Azzurre, brought pride and honor back to Italy on the world’s biggest stage. It was also the tough, Tuscan fighting spirit that allowed her to perform so well during the tournament.

Guagni is as Tuscan as the acca aspirata in her Florentine accent. At times, her accent is so thick that it makes her downright incomprehensible when she speaks. During those intervals, it seems like only people who are from the region can understand her. And if that’s not proof of how deeply embedded her roots are in her, then I don’t know what is.

Her loss is also a consequence of a system that refused to give her the proper support she needed.

It is a tragic tale of missed opportunities and the Italian authorities are the ones who penned it with their blood-stained hands.

All we can do is hope that she thrives in Spain now. If Alia does well in Atlético, then it will not only help the national team, as having her in-form will raise the level of their performances, but it will also give the Italian women a greater degree of visibility as well.

Alia’s success will show the world just how far the Italian women have in the past few years. It’s amazing to see how in a three-year interval, the Azzurre went from being insecure debutantes to producing some of the best players in the world.

With Guagni’s move to Atlético Madrid, the world outside of Italy will finally get to see what an amazing player she is.

It’s just a shame that she had to leave Italy to accomplish this.