You think because you are blonde and beautiful that you don’t have to work hard?”
My coach was shouting at me in the dressing room after our team, Italy, had just lost 6–0.
It was unacceptable, and we all knew it. But the strange thing was, I hadn’t even played in the game. Why was he yelling at me?
My coach, Sergio Guenza, was a phenomenal manager. He spent many years managing different sides in Italy — including successful professional men’s teams. He knew what he was doing. At the time, I didn’t understand why he said what he said. Eventually, I understood that he wanted me to be upset, and to see that the team needed me on the pitch. It’s why I was on the bench. He was making a point. Sometimes you need to be taken away from something to realize how much you mean to it. The next game, the results were obvious.
He put me in the starting lineup for the first time in our next match. I scored, and we won. He gave me a smile as I walked off the pitch that said: See. You get it now?
I was just 21, but I was taught lessons at a young age that led me toward a coaching career down the road. Sometimes, you’re not teaching somebody how to play. You’re teaching them how to think. Sports are as much about a mindset — a personality — as they are physical talent.
You had to be a brave little girl if you wanted to play football in Italy.
The entire country loved football. My whole family loved football. It was in our blood.
But, it was still a “man’s game.”
My father was in the Italian army. I knew bravery. We lived in a military complex in Venice, so we had a few sports fields and facilities near us. But there was only one sport I was going to choose. My brother, Davide, was two years older than me and I followed him everywhere. I made him drag me around Venice with his friends so we could play football. I played every day with boys who were older than me by two or three years.
Our schedule in elementary school worked a bit differently in Italy than it did in other countries. It left more time for activities. We would go to class, come home and eat lunch, and then go out to play football. We would play at the local park from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., or until Mom yelled at us that it was time to come inside to do our homework.
But it is no exaggeration that we played every day. Every. Single. Day.
I was never allowed to play in an organized game with the boys because of the local rules. But when I was 11, a women’s club started in our town. Unfortunately, you had to be 12 to play. But the club told my mom that I was very good and that they were going to call in some favors to get me on the team. I’m not sure what they did … but within a few days I was playing in a league where few players were 18 but the majority were 28 or 30 years old! That was the first time that I got to play real, competitive football.
I immediately knew that I had found my calling.
I loved to score. The feeling was unlike anything else. It didn’t matter how skilled, fast or young you were – if you scored, people would watch. Within a few years I was playing in the second tier (Serie B) of the Italian women’s football league. I was only 13, just trying to enjoy football and learn about the game. I was still scoring lots of goals, but I didn’t know what my future would hold, or what I wanted to pursue.
That all changed in 1978, when I was 14.
I came home from school one day and my dad was waiting for me in the kitchen.
“Carolina, I want you to sit down.”
“Oh, mamma mia!” I said “What happened now?”
Usually my mom was the one who would talk to me about serious things. I was concerned about what my dad was going to say.
“The president of your football club called me,” he said. “You have been called up to the national team.”
I could barely believe him. “Which national team?”
“What do you mean, ‘Which national team?’ ” he said, laughing.
I was stunned. I was only 14, how could I have been called up to play for Italy? I knew that I could score well in Serie B. But doing it against some of the best players in the world it was going to be a different task.
I remember how skeptical the other girls on the team were of me. How could they not be? My oldest teammate was in her late 30s? Most of them were in their 20s. Before our first training session I remember the way some of them glared at me from across the dressing room.
Two hours later, I had their respect.
The hours I had spent going shoulder to shoulder with older boys helped me — because I didn’t have the physicality to compete with them, I had to develop technical ability. For me, it was all about top-of-ball skill. I had to be quicker to get the ball off my feet and to make it go where I wanted it to go.
During my career with the national team, I also grew to love the tactical side of the game. I became close with the coaches and staff, and tried to learn everything I could about the sport. During games, I would often relay instructions from the coaches to the players. I felt like I could see the pitch from different angles.
I translated that skill to broadcasting toward the end of my playing career. I began doing color commentary for men’s Serie A games. When you’re on TV, you have to think about the sport in a unique way. You need to be able to relay a very complex series of plays to casual fans watching at home, and you need to be able to do it in a way that makes sense.
I have known for a long time — probably since that 6–0 loss to Denmark — that I wanted to be a coach. The impact that you can have on not only the game, but also on the players as people was what stood out to me.
When my career ended in 1999, I took a chance and became the manager of a men’s side in Serie C. It was an opportunity that unfortunately didn’t work out, but it was an important step for me. I learned a lot, including management’s sometimes overbearing involvement. The president at the time, Luciano Gaucci, used to intrude on training and make suggestions for his coaches. He tried to interfere with me, and at that point, I resigned. But the team, under my leadership, had won their group in the Copa Italia having defeated two teams (Ancona and Ascoli) that were later promoted to the Serie B. I felt that even though it didn’t work, I had earned enough respect on and off the field to continue my coaching career.
Despite other offers to coach men’s professional teams, I chose to be on one of the highest levels, International European championship with the Italian women’s National team – this time as manager.
The technology (data analysis and video) and talent level in the women’s game had risen since my playing days. But having spent so much time as an analyst for men’s football, I was still shocked at the differences between the two.
First of all, if you watch a women’s game, what do you notice?
Most people will say the speed.
There’s no acceleration and deceleration – everything moves at one pace compared to the men’s game. The skill is still there. The control these women have with the ball at their feet is terrific, but they lack so much in terms of physical preparation.
Why is that?
I think the problem starts with physical training from a young age. When boys become teenagers, the physical side of the game is heavily emphasized — football becomes as much about stamina as skill. It’s wind sprints and suicides … until they just can’t take anymore. For women, we still focus on the basics. It’s almost as if we think the only way to beat our opponents is with skill.
Look at the best women’s side in the world: the USWNT.
The U.S. is good technically, but its players aren’t that much better than everyone else. The Americans beat everyone because they’re fast, and they can outrun you in the 85th minute. The training systems in the U.S. don’t just focus on technical ability.
When I became the manager of the Canadian women’s national team in 2009, I tried to bring this to my practices. At the 2011 women’s World Cup, FIFA measured each team’s sprints per game. Canada ranked first, followed by the U.S. and Germany. It didn’t necessarily translate to success, because there’s much more to playing winning football at that level — including tactical approaches.
I try to study the best teams in the world as much as I can. Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich — they all play the game at the highest level tactically. And my biggest takeaway from watching them play was the idea of buildup. When I came to Canada, our keeper would immediately boot the ball down the field whenever she got it. But for a team like Barcelona, the keeper’s distribution is a very important part of each attack.
These are the little things that are holding our women’s game back.
I hope to bring these ideas with me as I head (along with the rest of my staff) to my next destination: Trinidad and Tobago. You probably didn’t even know that Trinidad and Tobago had a women’s team. It hasn’t qualified for a World Cup yet, but it is improving. In 2010, Trinidad and Tobago made it to the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup, and in 2014, the national team placed fourth in the CONCACAF Women’s Gold Cup.
There’s talent there, and I believe it’s a great place for me to start over and work with an enthusiastic group of young women.
Football has taken me all over the world and I’m thankful for that. We now stand at an important time for the women’s game. There’s an opportunity for us to continue to develop the sport — I just hope I can play a part.