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Rising Italy beats China in stark contrast of two national program trajectories

Joey Gulino
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Tuesday’s round of 16 clash between Italy and China featured one world power on the way out and another on the way up.

Goals from Valentina Giacinti and Aurora Galli lifted Italy past China 2-0 and into the Women’s World Cup quarterfinals for the first time since the very first edition in 1991.

It’s the product of women’s soccer finally being taken seriously in Italy. Starting this past season, the Italian Football Federation, or FIGC in the native language, has assumed governing responsibilities of the women’s Serie A and Serie B leagues. That’s led to increased investment by major clubs like Juventus, Fiorentina, AC Milan and Roma, and record attention has been paid as a result.

So in the Italians’ first trip to the Women’s World Cup in two decades, they’ve already exceeded their goal of merely reaching the knockout stage. They won a group that included Australia and Brazil, and now have taken down China, which used to be one of the powers of the sport.

Ever since their loss to the United States on penalty kicks in the landmark 1999 final, the Chinese have been on a downturn. They’ve gone out in the World Cup quarterfinals three times, and didn’t even qualify for the 2011 edition. Their domestic league has been underfunded despite the country’s economic prosperity.

Italy's Aurora Galli, right, celebrates with teammates after scoring their side's second goal during the Women's World Cup round of 16 soccer match between Italy and China at Stade de la Mosson in Montpellier, France, Tuesday, June 25, 2019. (AP Photo/Claude Paris)
Italy celebrates a goal by Aurora Galli (4) as China's Li Ying looks on Tuesday in Montpellier. (Associated Press)

Moreover, there remains an antiquated approach to team-building within the program. As illustrated by the New York Times, China drills uniformity into its players to the point that it restricts individuality. This type of sergeancy is simply outdated.

In the meantime, Italy is flourishing. The attack in particular has excelled at putting pressure on defenses at this World Cup, getting in behind however they can and generating chances from there.

Take Valentina Giacinti’s opener, a sequence she began herself by hounding Chinese defender Wu Haiyan 50 yards from goal. Giacinti chased down the deflection and played centrally to Barbara Bonansea, whose pass wide spun off a defender and into the path of Elisa Bartoli. The fullback’s thundering run down the left side paid off when Giacinti alertly cleaned up her cutback ball:

Shortly after halftime, Aurora Galli latched onto a low rocket that skipped off the turf and beat Chinese goalkeeper Peng Shimeng to the corner:

Galli came on late in the first half for Cristiana Girelli, and it’s unclear why Girelli had to come off. Speculation has suggested fatigue, and Italy has used just 15 of its 23 rostered players so far this World Cup. Then again, Girelli was substituted off in two of Italy’s three group stage matches. It may have been due to the yellow card she was carrying, as another yellow would’ve meant a suspension for the quarterfinal, but that line of thinking is also a bit thin.

In any case, Italy does in fact have a quarterfinal to worry about. China doesn’t, and scored just once all tournament, a solitary Li Ying strike against South Africa that ensured advancement. That lack of imagination and final product was there again vs. Italy, despite dominance of the ball.

China very much has the resources to be a power in women’s soccer. Even amid the program’s struggles, it’s still performing at a much higher level than the men, who have made the World Cup only once in 2002 and are yet to see the mass investment in the Chinese Super League pay off.

This Women’s World Cup represents as clear a fork in the road as the Chinese could ask for. It’s up to them which way they take.

The one that Italy’s taken sure looks fun.

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