Despite being one of the oldest women's leagues in the world, the landscape of Serie A would be changed forever when Fiorentina acquired a licence to play in the top tier in 2015, bringing about Italy's first professional women's team, 47 years after the foundation of the league.
Having romped to the 2016-17 title, Fiorentina were swiftly joined by follow professional outfits Juventus (in 2017), and both AC Milan and Roma in 2018. Today, the league is one of the handful around the world that operates as a fully professional one, and just like when the game existed in an amateur or semi-professional state around much of the world, representatives from Serie A are making waves in Europe.
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In their debut Champions League campaign, Roma have delighted en route to the quarterfinals, but drawn against Spanish heavyweights Barcelona, they face a Herculean task if they are to reach the last four. For the team that sits top of the table in Italy and have played some of the most scintillating football in Europe this season, the task of besting Barcelona may have come just a little too soon, but that obscures the bigger point: how did they get here in just four short years?
Acquiring RES Roma's Serie A licence in 2018, Associazione Sportiva Roma Femminile officially came into being, though they did not quite hit the ground running. A fourth-place finish in their first season saw them end their maiden campaign a full 20 points behind champions, Juventus. The next season brought about another fourth-place finish, followed by a drop to fifth in 2021 before a shake up ahead of the 2021-22 season when the club promoted manager Betty Bavagnoli to director/head of women's football and brought in Alessandro Spugna to lead the team.
It was a move that proved to be defining for Roma in their short history, with Spugna elevating the team almost instantly. A coach defined by Italian media as a "gestitore" -- someone who focuses more on managing the players rather than having a steadfast formation -- has added flexibility to how Roma play and attack, which has been key in their rise in Italy and on the continent.
"By varying the training sessions and working mostly on the principles, we want to understand better," Spugna told ESPN. "For example, if we want to win the ball back, we have to be aggressive and there's no difference if you play with four, three or three-and-a-half defenders: the principle is the one that make the difference on your style of play, not the system."
From different systems to those who play in them, Roma focus on dynamism and adaptability and it's even driven the kind of signings they've made, creating a more multinational squad that boasts a healthy mix of experience and familiarity. Indeed, in terms of personnel, the club seem to avoid any major missteps and blend seamlessly on the pitch, with several first-team players enjoying some of the best runs of form in their respective careers.
One such player is 30-year-old Norwegian Emilie Haavi, who was signed halfway through Spugna's first season as manager. The attacker is as comfortable playing full-back as on the wing and has been a consistent creative threat for Roma on the left, crediting the team's overall style as to why she's become such a cornerstone in the team. She tells ESPN that it's not just a style she enjoys, but one she feels confident playing, modestly stating that she's playing so well because the whole team is performing well.
Haavi is just one player on this Roma team that has collectively raised its level; very much her right-sided counterpart, Annamaria Serturini has become another key player to Roma's unrelenting attacking style, the 24-year-old producing some of her best football to-date in the Italian capital.
Although Spugna admits his job as a head coach -- this is his third season coaching a senior team after 18 years working with youth teams and academies -- is a different one to when he was working with younger players, his experience in developing players and helping their football grow as they grow up is clearly having an impact.
Defined as a "bold" style by Spugna, Roma like to spread out across the pitch, hence the importance of wingers like Haavi, Serturini and Benedetta Glionna, who can fire the ball into the box and pepper opposition defences from all angles. A world away from any defensive or catenaccio notions -- two things Italian football is traditionally known for -- Spugna preaches an aggressive approach that pays dividends. However, facing Barcelona, and in just their first season in the Champions League, the 49-year-old coach know the task is an onerous one.
"I'm pretty sure everyone knows at this point that we really like to be bold and aggressive, but this means also we need to be balanced. On Tuesday we'll have to be extra-focused: Barcelona will be the strongest opponent we have ever played against, nevertheless we'll try to play following our principles."
Indeed, it's a two-legged tie that Roma are not expected to progress from, as Barcelona have been the season-long favourites to lift the trophy in Eindhoven in June. As Haavi jokes, her initial thought after the draw was made was "Oh no, that was not what I wanted!," but the Norwegian has changed her mind since and is now looking forward to the occasion and atmosphere, hoping that the team can take invaluable experience from the two matches.
It's a thought shared by Bavagnoli who recently said, "After only five seasons, we will play Barcelona at the Stadio Olimpico in the UWCL quarter-final. We must be proud of that." (https://twitter.com/ASRomaWomen/status/1635980169746829312)
Still taking an active role with the women's team, Bavagnoli's partnership with Spugna speaks to how the team approaches their football with an emphasis on balance and collective work. As the coach explained to ESPN, "Betty is pivotal for AS Roma women's department and she has been very important for me since the beginning. She's a special person: I like talking with her not only about daily issues, but also about every single aspect of our growth as a team."
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When it comes to Roma's rapid development over the past season-and-a-half, there's an urge to ask what the magic formula is, but from Spugna and Bavagnoli's partnership to the left-right balance of Haavi and Serturini to the understanding between shuffling defenders, Moeka Minami, Carina Wenninger, Elena Linari and Elisa Bartoli, it's a success built on getting the details right. As Haavi noted, when she first moved to Roma, she struggled with the language and different culture, but unlike her short-lived spell at the Boston Breakers, the Norwegian found a way of overcoming the unfamiliar. There is a sense of contentedness from the Roma players; there's a joy not just in how they play, but where they play, that blends with the attacking panache Spugna wants.
While Barcelona might be a step too far for a Roma team that has a firm eye fixed on the Serie A title and the eight domestic games between them and a maiden Scudetto, the 180 minutes they'll share a pitch with the Blaugrana will provide one of the best learning experiences for all involved. Regardless of what happens at the Stadio Olimpico on Tuesday or the Camp Nou the following week, there is no question Le Giallorosse have firmly announced themselves to the women's football world.