Friday was no ordinary day for the pupils of one secondary school in Rimini. Word had already got out that the Istituto Tecnico Statale per Geometri Odone Belluzzi would be receiving some special guests. By the time the eight members of Italy's women's Under-19 team arrived, an expectant 150-strong crowd had gathered in the gym to greet the Azzurrine.
The girls were ushered into the room to great applause and invited to sit on a bench in the middle of the large room to field questions. To begin with none of the students had the courage to ask anything, but Benedetta De Angelis, the GS Roma CF defender, broke the ice by standing up, taking the microphone and addressing the throng.
"Hello everyone, my name is Benedetta," said the 19-year-old. "I started playing football when I was little, because I have four older brothers and used to play outside in the street with them. It's not easy if you're female and want to play football at a high level. I had to move away from my home in Abruzzo to play for Roma because I wanted to play in Serie A."
As part of an initiative by the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) to help promote the womens' game, each of the eight UEFA European Women's Under-19 Championship finalists have been affiliated to a school in the area. Odone Belluzzi had the good fortune to be matched up with their own national team.
Before long, several pupils plucked up the courage to ask questions about the standard of the women's game, where to play football if you are female – and in attacking midfielder Elisa Lecce's case – what her phone number was.
"Playing at this level means you have to make a lot of sacrifices," said defender Cecilia Salvai. "We cannot always be out late like our friends,
we miss out on a lot, but the joy of being a footballer makes it all worthwhile." Lecce is the perfect example of someone who has to be especially driven in order to play for ASD Napoli CF – it requires a two-and-a-half hour round trip four times a week.
"To squeeze everything into your day you have to be very organised," added defender Francesca Vitale. "It's not easy juggling school, training, homework and matches and it doesn't leave much time for friends. I had to miss out on a lot of things and we've always got our books with us at training camp."
Assistant coach Giorgia Brenzan, a former Italy captain and two-time FIFA World Cup finalist, then took the floor to thank the FIGC for their commitment to the girls, which includes providing tutors to help the Azzurrine combine their studies with training. She also reminded students that her side had already qualified for the semi-finals and next year's FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup finals in Uzbekistan with a match to spare.
The final word, though, went to De Angelis, whose heartfelt words were proof enough of just how determined she has had to be to make strides in the sport she loves. "The problem with women's football is the culture surrounding it. Families don't consider football a female sport and only take their sons to football practice.
We don't play for money, we don't play for fame; we play for the love of the game. We have a passion for football – that is why we play. And if you don't believe us, come and see for yourselves against Belgium at Bellaria on Sunday."
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