International Women Football Experience 2019

Boom. With Atletico Madrid vs Barcelona attracting a world record crowd of 60,739 last month and Juventus clinching the Italian women’s league title this month against Hellas Verona 3-0, former Lionesses Eni Aluko was among the goal scorers, women’s football is exploding across Europe. That crowd was 39,000, a national record. But beyond the bright lights and budget of the elite, few female grassroots teams seem to be making headway outside of England. On 12-13 April 2019, Milan-based team Calcetto Eleganza lit the fuse in Italy with the first ever International Women Football Experience to introduce their women’s team to the international scene. 

Determined to do things differently and capitalise on a major cultural moment, the increasingly influential outfit organised two days of fun, football and design during Milan Design Week supported by Nike. ‘This is the moment when Milan is active, contemporary and a point of reference for the whole world,’ Calcetto Eleganza Ladies team co-founders Lucia and Isabella told me afterwards, via email, when I asked why they decided to stage the event then. I went over on the same flight as fellow Londoners Goal Diggers FC, who stayed at the same trendy central hostel as the Cacahuètes Sluts team from Paris. ‘The coolest aspect is meeting realities similar to ours, we all feel unique and a little alone until we discover we are not.’

The major weekend takeaway was just how woke and sophisticated the women’s team and their set-up were from the get-go, with all the style and swagger you’d expect from Italians. Starting with the critical but constructive questions posed by moderator Roberto Marchesi (DAZN) at the Designing The Football of Tomorrow, Today talk session on Friday night (pictured above). In kit sponsor’s studio, absolutely jam-packed, panellists Davide Coppo (Rivista Undici), Francesca Vitale (AtalantaMozzanica), Alessia Tarquinio (Sky Sport) and I repping SEASON discussed the sprouting seeds and harsh realities of women’s football in and around Milan and increased TV and press coverage. Measured against the impressive progress in Turin (Juventus), England from the bottom up and beyond. Not too much was lost in translation (I did Latin rather than Italian) as we agreed that Italy is probably about four to five years behind where England is now. Calcetto Eleganza Ladies, with their creative, collaborative, inclusive approach to the culture, is essentially Milan’s answer to Romance FC. Boldly exploring the interplay between fashion, football and design on and off the pitch just like we (SEASON) are, with a multitude of men already on their side and plenty of must-cop merch. 

Bright and early on Saturday morning it was Hidden Tournament time (images below). In the shadow of  San Lorenzo Maggoire Bascilia, a historic church who gave permission for a teeny temporary pitch to be erected there for the first time, Italy (Calcetto Eleganza Ladies) went head-to-head with France (Cacahuètes Sluts) and England (Goal Diggers FC) in a friendly but fiercely competitive 4-a-side tournament. The referee rocked one of the Azzurri’s iconic 90s kit for the occasion. As trams trundled by, the sun played hide-and-seek and speakers blared hip hop, Justin Bieber and Charlie XCX, the home team came out on top. Shoutout to number 19 Teresa for her brilliant nutmegs. Calcetto Eleganza Ladies wowed with two kit changes, mesmerising skills and a vocal contingent of fans sporting the team’s graphic monochrome scarves and hoodies. It was no walkover, though, as Cacahuètes Sluts brought their A game and Goal Diggers FC tried their very best to bring the tournament home, scoring some fantastic goals in process. In fact, Verity from GDFC won best goal of the tournament, while Cacahuètes Sluts’ captain Fati won top scorer. Every single moment, from the insightful panel the night before to the memorable party later that night, was expertly captured for the ‘gram.

What did the other teams think? ‘We are very happy to be here because it’s very important to give visibility for women’s amateur football. It’s very cliche but the lesson I learnt is that when we create something together, we’re very strong,’ Fati from Cacahuètes Sluts shared as she took a breather pitch-side. ‘[The Italians] are very dynamic on the pitch and very serious.’ For Goal Diggers FC, it was great to experience what is happening outside of London. ‘It’s so nice now to come places like Milan and see teams doing similar things. It made us feel quite emotional during the tournament,’ founder Fleur said over an Aperol Spritz. ‘It’s exciting to see people prioritising women’s football and the whole movement behind it in a really positive way. Everyone had a smile on their face today.’

As I sat at Milan Malpensa Airport awaiting a flight back to London, everyone else happily danced the evening away and toasted a successful weekend at the IF Bags store, the Italian bag label Lucia and Isabella also founded. ‘The female team Calcetto Eleganza Ladies was born as the IF Bags' team, then we met the guys and proudly joined them,’ they explained. ‘Meeting people with the same difficulties, same passions, same way of living sports, same desire to be with friends and to have fun with them was the most beautiful part of the tournament and whole design week.’ Highlights below.

To find out even more about Calcetto Eleganza Ladies’ social mission, creative progress and fresh social media feed, I emailed some follow up questions to co-founders Lucia and Isabella. Here’s what they wrote back.

So how does Calcetto Eleganza Ladies normally operate?

‘We train "open" once a month with a professional from the Italian national team or the A series. We offer all girls the opportunity to be part of a team and fight stereotypes linked to women's football, giving credibility to what we do despite being amateur and born between friends. Different people of different ages, interests, sexual orientation and training. Girls in their twenties, women of forty, lawyers, designers, graphic designers, photographers… The more “elegant" [we make this], the more sure [we are] that the girls of tomorrow will not be denied the possibility to sign up for soccer. We sell merchandise and are supported by Nike for projects in Milan and internationally.’

How does the men’s team support what you do?

‘The boys welcomed us into Calcetto Eleganza with enthusiasm, and a huge dose of esteem. They are very proud of what we are building together, they help us to have a structure, talk about us with many different people and plan open training with us. We have no particular rules, it is important not to create hierarchies within the team and every player has the same importance. The only habit we have is to drink a beer after training.’

What issues and causes do you spotlight and why? 

‘IF Bags has a strong vocation to support minorities and women. [The brand] has always participated in Milan’s Pride parade and has dedicated a capsule collection to the theme of gender equality. The Calcetto Eleganza Ladies team is made up of people who also strongly believe in equality and is a wonderful opportunity, as well as a means, to amplify the message.’

How do you used social media to raise team awareness?

‘Instagram is fundamental for our project. It has allowed us to get in touch with other European teams and makes us credible for sponsors. We spend a lot of time creating quality content and work with professional photographers and video makers to visually interpret the heart of our projects and the team. Much of our commitment is based on the dissemination of our projects via social media.’

As it’s Design Week, talk me through your kit design and merch. How does it reflect the team? 

‘We have our official uniforms for the tournament, two versions in black and white, thanks to Nike. These two colours have always been the expression of elegance. The turquoise uniform was born when the IF Bags team was founded, designed by Isabella and Anna Magni. It is part of the our group’s history, we use it in unofficial moments and feel very affectionate towards it because it was the first jersey that give us an identity. It made us go from a group of friends who train together to a women's soccer team.’

What crossovers are you noticing between football and design?

‘Fashion identifies with streetwear which has marked an approach between street culture and the catwalk. Football, played in neighbourhood pitches, exemplifies this bond and the neighbourhood team’s (flashy) uniform is considered fashion. In this the closeness between us and fashion is clear: we are a team that plays and also has very cool uniform. The uniform is fundamental to our identity, it says who you are, what you like, what cultural references you have. Design contributes to everyday life and facilitates certain processes: sport facilitates equality in age, gender, social background.’

What differences are there in Italian women’s football culture and English women’s football culture?

‘In Italy, national team players could only afford to play football full-time a few years ago. You had to live-stream World Cup qualifiers on the internet until 10 months ago because no TV network was interested in putting them on the air. This year you can watch Serie A games on TV.’

What’s most exciting about the football scene in Italy for women right now?
‘Juventus turned the spotlight on women's football two years ago. It generated a chain reaction of all the other football clubs that had not really invested until then. Thanks to Juventus, we witnessed the first game played in a men’s stadium where the number of spectators was the same. Other interesting women's teams at the moment are Milan, Fiorentina and Rome.’

What are your plans for the Women’s World Cup 2019?

‘Italy qualified [so] we will try to amplify everything that will happen. We’re working with several partners and Calcetto Eleganza Ladies will be a beautiful sounding board. We would like to attend live, alternatively we will project the games as we have always done and dedicate a special space in the city where interested parties can watch, chat, have a drink and relax. Italy will surely win.’

Words Felicia Pennant 

Photography Matteo Banchi 

The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Disclosure: This is a sponsored post. SEASON zine were event media partners and my travel to attend and cover the event was paid for.