How the women of Fiorentina transcend Italian soccer’s gender roles

As the bus makes its way further east, it becomes more and more difficult to breathe, the smells of citrusy aftershave mingling with sweaty armpits smushed too close together. The crowd is blurring, dissolving into a haze of denim and purple. And even as the voices, too, blend together, fragments of conversations leap out: “Which is the stop for the Stadio Franchi?” “Did you hear? Tevez won’t start tonight.” “Don’t worry, Montella knows what he’s doing. He’ll figure it out.”

It’s the last that is, perhaps, the most surprising. No, not that a Fiorentina supporter has faith that Vincenzo Montella would be able to work out a way for his side to beat Juventus in the Coppa Italia semifinal. What’s remarkable is that the statement comes from a well-dressed woman in her sixties, head bent to make sure her companion, who looks as though she might be her mother, is able to hear. The older lady nods her head in agreement, then rattles off a stream of Italian I’m unable to catch, but I’m pretty sure I hear the word “Salah.”

Fiorentina fans Salah banner

No one’s mistaking Italy for a leader in women’s equality. The country ranks among the worst in Europe when it comes to gender equality, with low female employment rates and few initiatives to address imbalance. The word “feminist” remains taboo, and when gathered ‘round the table, it’s most often the men talking politics and the women doing the clearing up after the feast. There seems to be tremendous pressure on Italian women: not only are they responsible for the running of the household, for the care of the children, for the taking care of the elderly relatives, but they’re also meant to look perfect while doing it.

When it comes to calcio, little seems different. Bored cameras scan the stands of the stadium, seeking gorgeous women to zoom in on. Popular soccer shows like Quelli che… il calcio use scantily-clad women as props. The introduction of Spanish model Laura Barriales – complete with photographs highlighting her rearview in snug micro-shorts – caused nary a blinking eye on the peninsula. Women are treated as beautiful accessories to adorn the soccer conversation, not as intelligent minds to contribute to it.

Fiorentina girlsBut then there’s Florence. At first glance, you might think there’s nothing different about the women in this town. Snobbish observers, the sort that look down their noses at pink Boston Red Sox baseball caps, would write off these fans, sporting their purple-and-pink scarves stamped “Fiorentina Girls.” Sure, some might be doing it to make a fashion statement. And there are those in Italy who believe that most women who frequent the stadiums are there either to support their partners or to find a husband. However, the vast majority of the women I met at Viola games were passionate, intelligent, and committed fans.

“My father was an Interisti,” Francesca says, “But my mother was a Fiorentina fan. I’ve been going to games since I was four years old.” Francesca grew up in Friuli, a region in northeast Italy, bordering Slovenia. The majority of her classmates were not Udinese, or even Verona, fans. They supported Juventus. She tells a story of coming home from school after Fiorentina lost to Juventus, telling her mother she didn’t want to be a Viola fan anymore because “all she did was cry.” Her mother then pointed to the food on the table, saying “It’s all Florentine food. If you don’t support Fiorentina, you can’t eat!”Young Fiorentina fan at Stadio Artemio Franchi

Shortly after Francesca related this story, I found myself caught up in a scrum of fans, nearly nose-to-chest with one man. As I pulled back, I took in his t-shirt, which read, “From father to son: support your local team.” Francesca had rejected her father’s club in favor of her mother’s and was now taking her teenage son, Mattia, to Fiorentina games. Earlier in the week, I’d watched a young girl at the Stadio Franchi kicking a ball around with her dad. She’d overcome the heartbreak of owning a Stevan Jovetić shirt (which she’d proudly pulled on over a bulky jacket) and was clearly thrilled to be at the match with her father. In Florence, it seemed, there was no need to rely on male bloodlines to pass on the love of the local team.

These Fiorentina girls were no mere accessories. When watching their side get kicked out of the Coppa Italia by Juventus, the women behaved just as the men, jumping in excitement, groaning in frustration, berating the referee, arguing with other fans about substitutions Montella should be making. Many women made the six-hour trip to watch the game in Naples. From teenagers to grandmothers, they were there to support their club – not, it appeared, to land a husband.

Not that I’ve actively observed women trying to snag a man at Italian soccer games, but the perception exists. Perhaps because it’s an easier stereotype to apply in other cities throughout the country. Throughout my travels in Milan, in Rome, in Naples and in Parma, I’d never observed the same level of interest, by women, in the sport. The nation as a whole is obsessed, as evidenced by its multiple daily sports newspapers, its television shows dedicated to dissecting calcio, and the shouted discussions in coffee bars. But Florence is unique in the way that the presence of women, both physically in the stadium and in the conversation, constantly caught my attention.

No cursory examination of Italian culture accounts for this strong showing of female support for Fiorentina. Nor does the city itself seem to be particularly committed to gender equality, although it does tend to be left-leaning in its politics. But while it’s likely not actions the club itself is taking that attracts women supporters, there are certainly actions Fiorentina is taking to put itself at the forefront of the conversation about gender and calcio in Italy.

For instance, if you watch Fiorentina, you’ll often notice a woman on the bench. Yes, on the actual bench. Her name is Laura Paoletti and she’s the team manager, providing a link between the players, the coaching staff and the board of directors. Ms. Paoletti, who previously worked with the team’s younger players, also plays a role in organizing the team’s trainings and retreats. She’s the first women to hold such a position in Italian soccer.

Fiorentina is set to make history again next season, when it becomes the first professional team in Italy to include a women’s team under the club’s umbrella. ACF Firenze has existed since 1979, but at the urging of owner Andrea Della Valle, the team is Fiorentina fans at Stadio Artemio Franchibeing brought into Fiorentina. Della Valle wants to get more people talking about the lack of women in soccer, is speaking on his desire to involve more women at higher levels, and is taking active steps to bring more women to the club.

Even without a women’s soccer team, even without more than two women sitting on the club’s board, the women of Florence love their Fiorentina. Many are committed, passionate fans, but even the most casual supporters often join discussions over a meal or initiate conversations in the public sphere. And that’s refreshing, not just in Italy, where traditional gender roles seem ingrained, but throughout much of the world, where it’s nearly impossible for a woman to watch a soccer game without being asked if she’s there because she loves looking at the players’ physiques.