It is three years since Sara Gama helped Italy win the UEFA European Women's Under-19 Championship, but the CF Chiasiellis left-back can recall every game of the tournament as if it were yesterday.
Gama's days in the national youth ranks seemed to have ended after the defender established herself in the Italy senior team and she was expecting to spend the summer of 2008 relaxing after passing her school exams. Instead, the 19-year-old received a late call up for the Women's U19 finals and was handed the captain's armband.
She accepted the challenge with relish and guided the Azzurrine to their first women's title, sealed with a 1-0 victory against Norway in the final. "It was such an incredible joy to win," she said. "
I can't find words to describe it. Only the players who were there can really understand it."
That said, Gama knows how important sharing the experience is for the future of the women's game in Italy. "Usually there are players of three different age groups at those tournaments, and the older players always teach the youngest a few things; they have knowledge to impart. It is very important that the more experienced players share that knowledge with the youngest and that the latter learn from them."
Gama put the experience to personal use 12 months later as a member of Italy's UEFA Women's EURO 2009 squad which reached the quarter-finals in Finland. "The U19s helped me for sure, because the EURO was not my first major tournament and I felt more at ease," she said. "I felt more prepared because the preparations had begun for me the previous summer."
At the end of last year the Azzurre's FIFA Women's World Cup ambitions ended with a play-off defeat by twice-winners the United States. But with Gama and the rest of the 2008 vintage still maturing, the future is bright. "We grew as a team and as individuals we're still growing,” said Gama. "But the strength is in numbers and we need to attract more girls; we need to have more of them playing."
Victory for the hosts here in Emilia-Romagna would help, but Gama is careful not to put undue pressure on Italy. "It is the first time Italy has hosted a tournament like this and we have to make the most of it, but during the finals anything can happen."
For Gama, though, the recipe of success is simple. "'United we stand, divided we fall' should be the group motto," she said. "It's not always easy. There are 18 girls, which means you have 18 heads that are supposed to think alike and of course it's tough. But it's absolutely vital to build a strong united group."
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