Roma Women coach Betty Bavagnoli has seen it all during an illustrious career in the women’s game.
From the early years of the movement – where she reeled off numerous Scudetto victories as a player, and helped Italy achieve some tentative success on the international stage – to the sustained growth and development of the last few decades – where, as a coach, Bavagnoli helped break down a number of barriers – few individuals are as well-placed to reflect on the journey women’s football has taken in the last few decades.
On International Women’s Day, we sat down with Betty to discuss the full span of her career – and where she thinks the women’s game can still go over the coming years…
What were you like as a girl?
“I was an energetic girl, but was also very shy and had a strong sense of duty thanks to my parents, who felt manners, respect and helping others were all very important. I really wanted to play and run around after a ball from a young age, just like all children do, but especially boys. I was also very respectful of timing, such as when I had to be home after playing with friends.”
How did you get into football?
“Just like so many children, I started playing on my local pitch. Obviously, they were all boys and for quite some time, at least until I was 11, I didn't always get permission from my parents to go there, so I'd sneak there when I could.”
How welcoming were the other children to you?
“I have fond memories of playing football as a girl. All my male friends were very kind to me, probably because I was talented and they all wanted me on their team. I never had any problems or felt discriminated against by them. You might have thought that at that time there would be a more closed-mind approach, but I never experienced that on the pitch.”
And off the pitch?
“Off the pitch, however, I found there was more resistance. Other parents and adults who stopped to watch would end up labelling me a tomboy. Even just the sentence, “I play football” would trigger shocked reactions as if that were unthinkable. If I think back to that now, it makes me smile because I can say that the times have changed, but I think that what we've achieved today has come about thanks to people in my generation, the one before and the one after leading the battle against taboo and discrimination shown by all the people around us.”
When did you first join a girls' team?
“In terms of playing in a proper team, I started late, or rather, late by today's standards. I was 16 years old. Until the year before I would play with friends in the playground. I was always asked to play, but my parents preferred to make me do other sports. They signed me up to volleyball, judo and athletics, especially the high jump. Those all ended up being useful experiences to gain a better understanding of my physical attributes, such as my speed. In my head, I was always thinking about football, but it was also nice to find out about and experience other disciplines, because every sport can teach you so much.”
How did it all kick off in football?
“My mother wasn't in agreement with my choice, but I had a very close aunt who really wanted to help me fulfil my dream. She helped so much so that my parents did then let me get started. She took me to a women's team in Piacenza, my hometown.”
Compared with girls nowadays who have easier access to football, besides your feeling of pride for helping the movement grow, is there also a feeling of jealousy?
“The word 'jealousy' isn't the right one. I'm so pleased with what we've achieved and the lingering feeling is possibly regret for the fact that my generation wasn't able to experience what is available to girls nowadays. I say that without any anger or pain. If we'd had football schools like young boys had, we'd have been able to showcase the movement in the way that it deserves from a much earlier point. The team-mates and opponents that I've had in my career have all been very strong and didn't have the help or training that girls get today. From a personal point of view, I certainly would've liked to have lived through the present situation when I was seven or eight.”
When did you start to feel like you could really make it in football?
“Getting the call from Lazio when I was 22 was massive for me. It meant moving away from my family. We’d always been really tight and we’d never considered that I might go and live away from them, but my footballing career was starting to take off and I’d started to get some call-ups to the national team. Having said that, I first started to feel that football could become my life when I was at Piacenza and we won promotion to Serie A. Though I didn’t know how far I’d be able to go.”
You’ve played in lots of different positions. Which did you feel most comfortable in?
“I started out as a winger, but because of my running ability I was able to play anywhere on the flank. At international level, I was played at full-back, sharing the flank with Adele Marsiletti, who was a great player. I always saw myself as more of a midfielder and there were even times when I played more centrally.”
What’s been the highlight of your career in football?
“It’s tough to pick out just one. The first Scudetto I won, with Lazio, was an amazing feeling, but all seven titles I won were a thrill. Every one was an opportunity to think back to all the hard work and passion I put in and the desire I showed to make it as a female footballer. Getting to the final of the European Championship in 1993 was wonderful too – it was played in Romagna, near where I live. We knocked out Germany in the semi-finals, who were a much bigger side than we were back then. We ended up losing to another great team in Norway in the final, just as we did in the quarter-finals of the 1991 World Cup in China.”
What was it like following Italy at the 2019 World Cup?
“It was a struggle for me to contain my emotions every time I watched Italy play, even when I was commentating for Sky. Watching the Azzurre’s campaign made me think about the past, about how difficult it can be for young girls to get into football and about how much positivity that tournament generated. I loved seeing how the girls were appreciated and supported by the public. It was really hard for me to contain my emotion – they gave us a huge amount. I felt such incredible happiness.
“The best thing was hearing kind words from male athletes and from the fans who were so taken with the team and got right behind them. People were blown away by the feel-good vibe created by the teams, not just because of the football but also because of the loyalty and authenticity they showed out there.
“It really was incredible. Important progress has been made in recent years, not just in terms of the players and coaches but also as regards everyone working in women’s football, including the Football Association, who launched a big women’s football development plan in 2015. We’ve quickened the pace in the last five years, but we’ve not forgotten the battles we had to fight in the 30 years before that.”
There’s no doubt that progress has been made, but the key step of going professional hasn’t come yet. Are we close to that?
“That’s a tricky question to answer. It’s true that there has been progress but personally I don’t think we should assume that that’s a milestone that’s easy to achieve, not because there’s not the desire to get there, but because you need to make sure you put in all the little steps to get there so that you don’t then realise you haven’t done everything required to make sure we don’t go back again. I’m mainly referring to all the protections and coverage that clubs and the FA will need to introduce to make sure the change happens successfully.
“In this instance we’re talking about football, but there is no sport in Italy where women are professionals. We need to put women in a position where they can be protected. It’s not right for an athlete who plays sport professionally not to be protected in the event that she gets injured or becomes pregnant. We’re all united on that issue. I think we’ll probably need an intermediary step, but I hope it doesn’t take too long.”
Has the entry of professional football clubs into the women’s game been a positive?
“Yes, in my view they’ve made a massive contribution and provided a lot of support, not just economically but also structurally and in terms of image and managing a team professionally and competently. I hope that more and more come in, though not forgetting the historic women’s clubs that have always been in the game and without whom we wouldn’t have got to where we are today.”
One of the most important periods in your career was when you worked with Carolina Morace at Viterbese. What was the experience of being part of the first female coaching staff at a professional men’s club like for you?
“It was an incredible period. The club president, Luciano Gaucci, made a decision that was initially quite provocative – a move designed to spark publicity and get people talking about the club. We had our summer training camp in Soriano nel Cimino and on the first day we had CNN, Al Jazeera and other broadcasters from all over the world there covering it. As well as having this revolutionary idea, Gaucci also brought in a very able coach in Morace. Maybe he thought he’d be able to manage and control her personality. Carolina was definitely capable to speaking to the team and managing a men’s dressing room, but like all coaches, there’s always a risk of differences of opinion with the owners, and that happened when the president decided to change a number of members of the coaching staff. Carolina opposed that and ended up resigning. However, it was an incredible, intense, hugely important experience.
“The whole thing lasted five months, including pre-season, but it certainly had a big impact. I remember it with great joy and gratitude, particularly towards the players in the team – a group of men being coached by a woman for the first time. They could have reacted in all sorts of ways, but their professionalism was the best part of the experience. They were always willing and focused. It was an excellent team too, with players that later went on to play in Serie A, like Fabio Liverani and Davide Baiocco.”
You were also Carolina Morace’s assistant with the Canadian national team. What did you learn from that experience?
“That was another wonderful time. I remember it with joy, happiness and emotion. It was a really intense two and a half years. In Italy we have great football knowledge, particularly when it comes to technique and tactics. The respect we found in North America and the way they looked after the physical side of things was really surprising, almost obsessive. They were a very physically strong team but they had some tactical shortcomings, so that was what we focused on. We learned a lot ourselves too. Winning the CONCACAF Cup was a wonderful feeling, so I’m infinitely grateful to the professionalism of those Canadian players.”
What kind of bond do you have with the city of Rome? Does it feel like a second home?
“Absolutely. I feel like an honorary Roman – I’ve been living here for 30 years basically. This city has given me an awful lot. Obviously I feel very close to my roots, but in all the time I’ve spent travelling the world, I’ve never found a more beautiful city than Rome. I really believe that it’s the most beautiful city in the world. I truly love this city. I think we’ll all have to do a bit more to help it to keep getting better.”
We’re just over halfway through the season and Roma are still in the hunt for a Champions League place and still in the hat for the Coppa Italia. What’s been the biggest improvement in the team compared with last season?
“We’ve definitely tried to up the quality. From a team perspective, at this point of the season, the improvement I’m happiest with is that we’ve become more of a team. We’re realising that we need to build a first-rate mentality. We do a lot of work on our weaknesses in terms of technique, tactics and fitness, but the thing that really makes all the difference is mentality – that goes for sport and for life in general. The girls are realising that it’s time to take that extra step to achieve the targets we’ve set ourselves.
“Nothing and nobody is preventing us from trying to win, but if we’re going to try for that we need to know that we need to raise the bar – and that’s something that starts in our heads. I’m working hard on that and recently the girls are showing increased awareness. Without setting specific objectives, my team and I will try to go as far as we can.”
Check out earlier entries in our Big Interview series:
AS Roma x Chris Smalling
AS Roma x Edin Dzeko
AS Roma x Gianluca Mancini
AS Roma x Aleksandar Kolarov
AS Roma x Nicolo Zaniolo
AS Roma x Jim Pallotta
AS Roma x Cengiz Under
AS Roma x Paulo Fonseca
AS Roma x Leonardo Spinazzola