Milena Bertolini talks about understanding her players and a growing home league

Italy head coach on getting into coaching and the one thing that has alluded the Azzurre for two decades

Milena Bertolini talks about understanding her players and a growing home league
Credit: Getty/Gabriele Maltinti

One of the mainstays of the European Championships – missing the tournament just once in the twelve editions of the modern era – last summer was a disappointing affair for Italy, the Azzurre unable to overcome a first night defeat at the hands of Russia.

A group stage exit punctuated by the departure of five-year coach Antonio Cabrini, his replacement a titan of women’s football in Italy, Milena Bertolini. The Correggesi coach’s intimate knowledge of the current crop of players and vast coaching experience having seen her transition smoothly into the role.

A passion

Well decorated as both a player and a coach, Bertolini’s love for what she does runs deep the national coach well on her path in her early teens,

“Ever since I was 14 I knew… I would study physical education and I would coach, it has always been my passion, and my love since I was a child. I started coaching at 20, first men then I went back to women’s football.

Adept at coaching both men and women, the former defender is quick to point out that neither sex is easier than the other to coach but require different approaches,

One is not easier than the other, they are different. With the men, it’s easier from a psychological point of view but with women you have to be more of a psychologist to understand them. Men and women are different, so you have to approach coaching them differently; men are more “basic” and women are more sensitive and complex so you have to deal with them accordingly.”   

Having taken to her new role like a duck to water, Bertolini owes a lot to having worked in Serie A for well over a decade, the players familiar to her, their strengths and weaknesses already well catalogued,

Absolutely! I was as coach in Serie A for fourteen years and that has helped me a lot because as a coach in the league I knew the players both on the pitch and personally. So, if someone else comes in and they don’t have experience with the league, first of all they don’t know the people and it takes like four months to first get to know those playing in the league and it just wastes time.”

A long way to go still

Anyone with even a casual interest in women’s football in Italy (Calcio Femminile) will have noticed the sudden appearance and domination of Juventus this season, the Old Lady having followed on from Fiorentina the previous season. The changes to a more professional environment is a new development, but much pushed by the FIGC but the league still has a long way to go,

For fifteen years, it was like Italian women’s football was not going on but in the last thee years there have been a lot of changes, due to what the federation has done as well. So, with the new laws – now the teams in the men’s Serie A are supposed to have a women’s team like you see with Juventus and Fiorentina. From a media point of view, it has increased the attention a lot and in the next years Inter and [AC] Milan will have women’s teams as well so it’s growing and this has helped a lot but compared to other European leagues we are years late.

Though known for her time at Brescia, Bertolini knows that the new rules will likely see the team taken over by an established men’s team, Bresica’s home not much more than 50 miles from the San Siro. Still the Serie A winning coach feels no remorse for the teams in the league,  

Brescia could be purchased by Inter or Milan – if there are teams like Brescia, Tavagnacco and Mozzanica who don’t have enough financial resources, they might not be able to play in Serie A.

A country known for football as it for cars, pasta and being oddly shaped like an item of footwear, it’s not always easy for young girls to get into the sport,  

There are cultural differences so it’s harder for girls to start playing but also it’s not easy for the girls to find the teams where they can play.

But again, the new rules handed down from the FIGC will help provide a pathway for young girls to get into the sport and yet become the new Pirlo, Baggio or Cannavaro,

The fact that the clubs have been obliged to change… say a young girl lives in Milan, she knows that Inter has the youth set-up so they know she can play for them and that helps. But there’s still a lot that can be done to improve this.

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Twenty years of hurt

Atop of Group 6 in UEFA Women’s World Cup qualification, Italy have yet to taste defeat but draw into a group with two other nations to have featured at the 2017 Euros, qualification is far from in the bag. Although both Belgium and Portugal could cause an upset, both Bertolini’s understanding of her players and their own belief has firmly put the Azzurre in the driving seat,

What has helped is that I know all the players and they are all very motivated so that’s very good for me and them but the job has not been done yet.

Promoting a fast-paced, physical and deliciously attacking brand of football, the coach is keen to harness the natural abilities of her players and set the tone when Italy take to the pitch,

I trust in the players and their qualities and it’s the quality of the players that gives the team the chance to impose their way of playing so we can attack because that’s what we want to do, that’s how they want to play. Before it was more passive but the qualities the team has allows us to decide the way they want to play.

Not just an ever-present of European Championships but a firm favourite in the old-style invitation version of the Women’s World Cup, Italy have consistently struggled to reach the modern tournament. In fact of the seven editions played, the Azzurre have only featured twice, once at the first of the new era at China 1991 when a solid group stage saw them make it to the quarter-finals. Then again eight years later in the USA, when their tournament was cut-short at the group stage, winning, drawing and losing once the team finished third behind Germany and Brazil.

When asked what she wants to achieve with the squad, Bertolini doesn’t even have to draw breath before answering,

World Cup qualification because Italy havn’t played at the world cup for twenty years.

Finishing on a lighter note, the Azzurre boss answers that age-old question of what three things she would take if she were stuck on a desert island,

Greek yoghurt, books and an important person.”