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Italy are ready to become the world’s next great team

Italy was a pleasant surprise in the 2019 World Cup. Their victory over Australia in the group stage was one of the games of the tournament, and the first clear sign that they were a serious player. They followed it up with a thumping win over Jamaica, and a solid victory over China in the first knockout game. Although they finally fell to the Netherlands in the quarterfinals, the tournament overall still felt like a rousing success. For Italy’s first appearance in the World Cup in twenty years, fans back home rallied around the team, putting the women’s game at the front of the national sports conversation for the very first time.

Some of that was serendipity. Italy’s success happened to come during one of the most dismal periods of the men’s side, which created a bit of an opening in the national consciousness. But that wouldn’t have mattered if the performances themselves didn’t warrant the attention.

And yet, there was a tiny whiff of sadness to the experience. At the heart of the team was a generation of players who had grown up with almost no support—no professional league, very little coaching, no attention or care. Most of them were already in their late 20s or early 30s. Was this going to be the high-water mark?

Happily, the answer to that seems to be an emphatic no. The old guard is still here and still playing very well, but the truly exciting thing about Italy is the quality of the next generation. And we saw both halves of this equation on display this international break.

First, the full-strength squad matched up against the Netherlands and earned a solid 1-0 win, a nice bit of revenge for having been put out by the Netherlands in that World Cup quarterfinal two years before. Admittedly, the Dutch haven’t looked their absolute best recently, and they were also without Vivianne Miedema and Lieke Martens, among others. Still, the Dutch did manage to put seven past Norway in their follow-up to this Italian defeat, which puts the Italian performance into some perspective.

Most notably, this game was all about how thoroughly Italy throttled the Dutch attack. They set up very defensively, but showed how a defensive structure doesn’t always mean conceding control of the game. Italy’s solidity gave them a platform to launch occasional but potent attacks, using the width of the pitch to spread out the opposition and generate some decent chances.

But for all the joy the team surely took from beating the Netherlands, possibly the more important match this week was their 3-2 win over Austria. For this match, they tapped their reserves, rotating out ten of the starters from the previous game. But even that doesn’t sufficiently emphasize the magnitude of the change. Because this wasn’t simply a matter of bringing in the second string. The entire starting XI for this game put together had only about 100 caps—60% of which belonged to Elena Linari, the one holdover from the Netherlands game. Eight of the starters were 23 or younger.

That shows just how much talent is working its way through the pipeline right now. And unlike the previous generations, this wave of young Italian players will develop within a fully professionalized, and increasingly competitive, league.

Juventus remain the dominant force in Serie A Femminile—having gone a perfect 22 for 22 this year. But the overall quality is rising quickly. And you can see that in the XI that started against Austria, which featured players from Roma, Empoli, Florentia, Sassuolo, and Fiorentina. That overstates things a bit, since many of these young talents are signed to Juve and merely on loan to other clubs. Even so, it shows just how much talent there is coming up the ranks.

Some specific names worth remembering: Sofia Cantore, one of those Juve players out on loan who scored nine and assisted five goals for Florentia this year, and who is only 20 years old. Another Juve loanee, Benedetta Glionna, also had a very productive year for Empoli—scoring ten and assisting four. It looks like she’ll move on loan to Roma next year. Arianna Caruso, a delightfully smooth midfielder who already plays like she’s been around for years despite being just 21. Martina Lenzini, a strong defender.

And most notably from the game against Austria: Angelica Soffia, who scored Italy’s two opening goals. The young fullback is coming off an excellent season for AS Roma, where she played a key role in building the team’s attack, although she was not generally much of a goal-scoring threat herself. But this game suggests there’s even more space in her game for improvements in that area. In particular, her second goal was an absolutely stunning chip from a wide left position.

And that’s only scratching the surface. This roster is chock full of excellent young players who have already shown they can compete at the highest level. With a strong league environment to develop in, there’s no telling how high their ceiling could go.

Over the last three or four years, Spain has transformed themselves from a promising team that couldn’t quite put it together to a squad that looks ready to challenge the US for ‘best team in the world.’ Do not be surprised if Italy follows a very similar trajectory.

That story isn't unique to Italy. There are wonderful new generations of talent coming up for lots of countries--especially in Europe where institutions that have been slow to support the women's game are finally starting to turn the ship around. But few, if any, have as much potential for growth. The future looks very bright indeed for Le Azzurre.

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