Italian soccer has had its fair share of icons — and prejudices. With the Women's World Cup underway, it's time to rewrite the rules of the beautiful game for the beautiful country.
Black and female, straight-talking and proudly Italian: Sara Gama, the captain of Italy's women soccer team, has become a role model for what the bel paese could become in the 21st century. There's even a Barbie doll dedicated to her. Still, Gama may represent a threat for some, with her personal story and frank words undermining some of the rhetoric coming from the anti-immigrant League party that's become the top political force in Italy after the recent European elections.
As the Women's World Cup gets underway in France, Gama is fighting for more than the international title: She wants everyone to give women as much credit as men. "One day we'll talk about soccer and that's it, without defining the gender," she says. As for being a multiethnic captain for the national team of the national sport in Italy, Gama is clear: "It shows the face of a globalized society. We are mixed, and mixing improves us. The more you see it, the more you get used to it."
Place of Birth: Trieste, Italy
Date of Birth: March 27, 1989
Education: She has a degree in foreign languages from the University of Udine, where she studied English and Spanish. She also learned French in Paris, where she obtained the Diploma in Advanced French Language (DALF).
Titles: She won the European title with the Under-19 team in 2008. As a captain for the newly-created Juventus women's team, she won two league championships (2018, 2019) and a Coppa Italia (2019).
ICONIC In 2018, Mattel dedicated a Barbie doll to Gama as a part of the Sheroes series — she was the only Italian to be recognized by the international toy brand. "I didn't think I had any affinity with dolls, but then I got it. The doll says you can do whatever you want," Gama told Italian daily La Stampa. Her trademark free afro hairstyle has also led to a national shampoo commercial.
EARLY DAYS Gama started playing soccer when she was seven years old, in the street with friends. At the time she could only play with boys, because there were no other girls, and there was no female team. "Children by nature don't discriminate," says Gama. "It's parents who put stereotypes in their minds." At 12, she had to travel an hour to train in an all-girls team. Her father returned to the Democratic Republic of Congo after studying engineering in Italy. It was her mother and grandfather who supported her in her passion, though there were no big soccer fans at home: "I think it was instinctive, it was written in my stars."
MAKING IT BIG In 2008, Gama was not supposed to play in the UEFA European Women's Under-19 Championship because of a series of injuries, and was resigned to relaxing during the summer after her final school exams. But she was called in last-minute and handed the captain's arm band. And she made the difference, as Italy won and she was named Golden Player.
FIGHTING AGAINST STEREOTYPES
Gama holds a seat on the Federal Board of Italy's Soccer Association FIGC and is the president of the federal commission for the development of women's soccer in Italy. Women are considered amateur and cannot sign professional contracts in Italy, meaning they cannot earn more than 30,000 euros a year from their clubs.
Women are officially part of the Lega Nazionale Dilettanti (LND), the country's amateur soccer association. In 2015, Felice Belloli, then LND president, said: "That's enough, we can't always talk about giving money to this bunch of lesbians." (He was sacked shortly after.) "I was furious', said Gama recalling the moment she found out about Belolli's remark.
"But we are on the right path. Now we train as professionals," she says, pointing out that many important clubs, such as Juventus, are investing in women's soccer.
IF ONLY BALOTELLI HAD IT LIKE THIS ... Women may not receive the credit they deserve, but women's soccer does have some advantages over Italian male soccer. African men's soccer players — even those born in Italy — have been at the receiving end of racist chants for years. Take the situation for standout striker Mario Balotelli, who was born to Ghanaian parents and then taken in by a foster family in northern Italy, adopting their last name. Last year, during a friendly against Saudi Arabia in which Balotelli scored, fans unfurled a banner that read "My captain has Italian blood" — after suggestions that "SuperMario" may receive the arm band. Most recently, there were racist chants against Juventus teenaged standout Moise Kean.
So far, Gama and other black female players have not received the kind of racist insults her male colleagues are sadly accustomed to. "We manage to shield ourselves. The fact remains that if our society is intolerant and instigates hatred, this attitude is also reflected in the stadiums."
WHAT'S NEXT At 30, Gama has no intention of letting go of soccer. She says she cannot imagine herself as a coach, but she wants to continue working from behind the scenes to make sport more equal. "There is no female leadership," she says. She hopes that more girls can join the sport, starting from an early age. "I would tell mothers: "Let your daughters play soccer", the best can develop important careers. No sport is "male-only": these are clichés that get shattered when you see the athletes in action."
OTHERS FIGHTING FOR EQUALITY
At 33, Marta Vieira da Silva, best know as Marta, is the only soccer player in the world — either male or female — to have been named Player of the Year six times. She is also the most prolific scorer in Women's World Cup history. Her inspiring story has turned her into a role model and a UN Goodwill Ambassador.
Ada Hegerberg, Norway
Awarded the inaugural Women's Ballon d'Or in 2018, Ada Hegerberg had to deal with a presenter who asked her to twerk on stage when she was handed the prize. She is now sitting out the World Cup because she has pledged not to play for Norway until female players are respected as much as men. In 2017, Norway signed a historic equal pay agreement between men and women players, but Hegerberg stands by her decision not to play, saying the problem is not about money. "It's impossible to be in football and not fight for equality," she said.
Macarena Sánchez, Argentina
Earlier this year, Macarena Sánchez took legal action against her former club team and the Argentine soccer federation to be recognized as a professional player. Her fight resulted in Argentina's soccer federation announcing that its women's league would be granted professional status.
Alex Morgan, U.S.A.
Olympic gold medalist, Women's World Cup winner, and one of TIME magazine's 100 most influential people of 2019, the co-captain of the U.S. national team has long fought for pay parity with her teammates. Players from the women's national team filed a lawsuit against the country's Soccer Federation over equal treatment and pay on March 8, saying they earn just 38% of what their male counterparts earn, even though they are more successful.