Recognisable as one of the greats of Italian women’s football, alongside the likes of Carolina Morace and the prolific Patrizia Panico, Rita Guarino is carving out a distinguished career as a coach, leading newly formed Juventus to a scudetto in their first season.
Having blinked into existence in time for the 2017-18 Serie A season, Guarino had her work cut out for her, putting a squad together with less than two months before the start of the campaign.
Level-headed and with a tangible passion for her work, not just to lead the Bianconere to silverware but lift the entire level of women’s football in Italy and push for more parity, she’s in the midst of a pre-season London-tour, having just been humbled by Arsenal when we sit down to talk.
A trip to China
Not long out of her teens when Sergio Guenza included her in his squad for the first official Women’s World Cup, an all-too short trip to Guangdong enough to open her eyes to the possibilities of professional football.
“I played football for 16 years, 13 for national team. I was very lucky because when I was 20, I participated at the first World Cup in China and so after, I believed that football could be my profession.”
With a professional CV that lists teams from Torino to Sardinia, Guarino kept herself busy in her playing days, a partnership with Ángeles Parejo Jiménez in Sardinia where she sang on the pitch with Torres. The longstanding league in Italy celebrating it’s half-century this year, though professionalism is very much nuovo.
“I played in a lot of teams in Italy, and one champions league, it was incredible the change of football in 20 years. It’s very up around the world, before it was just the US, Germany that was the big of the world and now, all around the world you can compete at a high level.”
The progression from player to coach one of the most natural for the 47-year-old.
“When I was a player, I coached at the same with the young players and when I finished playing, after a year I went to the young national team to support the U17 as an assistant coach; the call up of Juventus was my first experience with an A-team.”
Those familiar with women’s football will be aware that there is a drop-off in the teens when players decide to hang up their boots and focus on a career (or studies), not having the extra time to play. In charge of the Italian under-17s at a crucial time, Guarino was always conscientious to work on motivation, guiding and keeping those playing, involved.
“When I was a coach of under-17’s, I worked a lot on motivation, I thought they are stronger than I was 20 years ago so the motivation is not just for thinking football is a job. You have to think, football is a passion – first of all that can grow you as a person, you can use it also in life because it’s a school. Other days I think, if you work a lot you use football to change the mentality, the mentality of people in Italy, so I teach them to believe in themselves and what they do.”
Following on from Fiorentina the previous season, Juventus made their intentions clear, professional football and a winning mentality to push the standards at home, the team wanting for nothing.
“My experience with Juventus is incredible because you can have all you need for training and the facilities and the organisation to do the best you can, you have staff completely for physical therapy, match analysist etcetera.”
Not just keen to make sure the team has all it needs to succeed on the pitch, the team from Turin has consistently pushed the side online, making matches assessable to those around the world, their strong media presence enough to keep the Juventus fans well fed.
“The media support, for me, is the most incredible support that you can use to have the visibility and change opinions – the culture in Italy is hard to improve.”
Early challenges and a sprint for the finish line
Given the chance most coaches would lick their lips at, allowed to craft a squad from scratch, offering professional deals and the best facilities in the country, it wasn’t all smooth sailing for Guarino and her team.
“It was not so easy because we started in July we write the first name on a blank… naturally when Juventus call with a big project, players are happy to find it because players are waiting for a professional team for a lot of years. For the first year it was not so easy, in one month, to do the construction of the team.”
Having recruited not just some of the best from within Italy but with a wider net cast of Europe with the likes of Katie Zelem, Tuija Hyyrynen and Ingvild Isaksen. Guarino had a job on her hands, not just getting everyone on board with her system but teaching the Italian way of playing to those unfamiliar, although she conceded, “That is the job of a coach!”
Continuing, “It’s not easy because in Italy we work a lot with the technical session and organisation but in other countries they work a lot one-to-one and with the physical aspect so not all can play this type of way. We need a lot of time but I think if you find a player who wants to improve and work for the same project, it’s not a problem to introduce them to the organisation of the team.”
Storming out of the blocks at the start of the season, the newly formed team won their first 22 matches in all competition, all but running away with the title, taking teams to task and having seen off nearest competition, Brescia in their first meeting, the Old Lady was in for a rude awakening. With just the one loss under their own belts, the Leonessa struck twice in the first half in Vinovo to leave the hosts with it all to do, Lisa Boattin’s goal after the hour not enough to turn the tide, the two teams tied on points at the top of the table. The loss fed into another the following week as Juventus again fell 2-1, this time to a resurgent Fiorentina team, a win over Zaccaria getting them back on track before they were knocked out of the Coppa Italia by Brescia. Their win over Juventus not enough to keep them going as they slipped to a 3-2 defeat at the hands of Mozzanica, there was nothing to separate Brescia and Juventus at the top of the table after 22 matches, the two with 60 points a piece. A championship decider scheduled in Novara for the end of the season, the two teams who’d been locked in a power struggle all year inseparable after 90 minutes, after extra time and after five penalties each, Boattin’s sudden death strike not matched by Federica Di Criscio, the title Juventus’s.
The feeling of, not just winning the scudetto, but in such dramatic fashion? All but indescribable.
“It was incredible! It was the perfect year to live, you have a lot of emotion, lot of emotion, lot of emotion! And when you win after that it was incredible. I can’t describe this… naturally you can lose a final, a penalty kick is just… you have to be also lucky, it was incredible, I can’t describe it.”
A tougher test awaits
In what looked like a relaxed year with the team strolling to victory, Guarino insists the motivation to be better never wanes.
“I think you can, every time you can improve yourself, every time, it’s not because you win because you are strong; you win because you did what we asked. So, the motivation improves the team, every player to be better. Because our point of view is international level, also when I played, I always take this as a point of reference; the international level, this is the motivation – there are stronger players in the world and you have to see there not here, you have to see the best to be the best.”
After navigating their first season in Serie A, conceding just nine goals in 22 outings, Juventus were left reeling after two pre-season losses in London, the Italian champions succumbing 5-0 to Arsenal and 3-0 to Chelsea. The matches a teaching experience for Guarino, even played in friendly conditions, the bar raised for her team.
“I coached the national team, so I know very well what it means playing against Germany and Spain, I know the level. I know Arsenal is in the international competition for 10-15 years, so we are coming for the first appearance and I know they have a lot of international top players and in this moment; they play football that we are looking for.”
The project in Turin focused on long-term over short-term, the defeats all part of the process.
“But it’s too early. Not just for the season, but it’s early to think we can be competitive with this type of club, we need more time to develop a total system in Italy and the total level of player, it’s different and I know very well, and we are here to be part of an international experience. All of us must know very well what we are aiming for, the international level.”
With the arrival of [AC] Milan and Roma, the standard in the league is only going up, Serie A femminile soon to mirror Serie A maschile, the tougher the test, the better for those involved.
“They prepare themselves, I think the more the difficulty, the more motivation. It’s better for all that there are more professional teams coming in in our league because this means in the future a player can believe they can be professional and they are so happy to have this competition.”
Having locked horns with Brescia four times over the 2017-18 season and Juventus will have a new task over the coming season with Brescia’s licence having been bought by Milan. Guarino’s old teammate Carolina Morace the one to take charge of the Rossonere, a meeting the head coach is looking forward to.
“I am very happy that she comes back to Italy, we need her experience, we need more female coaches come to this competition, and I’m waiting for this match to win,” she laughs, “I think they will be great matches.”
For someone who has become a pillar of women’s football in Italy, Guarino’s dreams are based in the reality she finds herself living in.
“I want to be part in a project like Juventus because I work in a long part of my life in football and female football and I never… I always believed that one day, female footballer can be part of in the same equality of a men’s team. I like this project at Juventus and I would like to be part of it for a long time.”
And of course, if she was stuck on a desert island, three essentials she’d take with her?
“Food and water, something to create a soccer field and a ball… what I need to be happy.”