A Rare Woman on a European Soccer Field
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this scout may be handpicking the next World Cup winner.
By Silvia Marchetti
Enthusiastic moms get together at the sidelines of the soccer field to watch their teenage sons kick balls and exercise feet. Often, they’re the only “female” presence out there. But that’s not the case when coach and top scout Elisabet Spina steps onto the pitch. Dressed in her usual sports gear with zero makeup and hair pulled up into a ponytail, she blows the whistle and calls the wannabe Cristiano Ronaldos for a brief. All eyes are on her.
Spina, who holds three university degrees, is the first female professional coach to pass the Union of European Football Associations tests with the highest maximum score of 110/110; she joins the ranks of a coaching elite that’s peopled by very few females. (Official statistics are unavailable.) Her male colleagues accepted her victory: “I was expecting it. Spina is extremely prepared; she showed great competence throughout the course, and I think she rocks as a coach,” says colleague Mirko Mazzantini. Today, 33-year-old Spina trains under-17 players and serves as a talent scout for Milan AC, the seventh-ranked team in Italy’s premier league Serie A. She is, in sum, the eyes and ears spotting the next big stars in the game.
Gender, as ever, is a thing — but it’s not the thing for Spina. Cussing? Spitting? All fine by her. And, she notes, “I don’t mind visiting changing rooms, but after players have taken their shower and dressed. I just don’t walk in when they’re naked.” It’s the same as any male coach would do, she figures. “What’s the big deal?” But her presence and success are both shifts in this world: “This has always been a male kingdom,” says Felice Pulici, a former Lazio squad goalie and then coach, who is a man. Pulici says the gender balance could even out, provided women are “trained properly, not just technically but also physically.” He’s referring to the rarity of women coaching male teams across all European sports. Some, like swimming or volleyball, see female coaches for men’s teams, but one could chalk that up to less violent or macho culture in the pool or on the court. Generally, women work the sidelines as managers or physiotherapists.
I don’t know why, I just felt this magical pull toward it. The ball was my only toy. It’s something innate.
Growing up in the Tuscan countryside with lots of green spaces and a lovely house surrounded by a garden and pinewood, Spina began running after “that round thing,” as she puts it, at an early age; by 12 she was already playing in Italy’s girls’ youth football championships. “I don’t know why, I just felt this magical pull toward it. The ball was my only toy. It’s something innate.” At school, during breaks and lunchtime, instead of running to the bathroom to check her hair or gossip with her girlfriends, she’d grab a ball and start kicking with the boys. It runs in the family: Spina’s brother plays for local teams.
But one day, Spina twisted her knee. She had to make a choice: quit altogether or shift to the shadow work of the soccer world — coaching, training, scouting, handling the health and wellness of the players. She chose coaching and training. She doubled up on her schooling, studying to become coach while also attending college. Today, she holds degrees in sports and body sciences (covering things like healing and broken bones). Spina entered the leagues by playing for local squads before jumping to train with Milan AC.
Today, her colleagues say she has a particular touch. Massimo Lucchesi sees her manner in gendered terms — in a good way, he believes: “Spina has a unique way of handling young players: She’s able to be sweet like a caring mother out of the field, showing all the sensibility typical of a woman, but also tough and rigorous like no male coach can be when the game gets harsh and kids need to learn.” Spina, for her part, doesn’t self-describe as maternal or as a denizen of Venus over Mars. She simply says different approaches are helpful in training youth.
Going forward, Spina’s typical career path would be training squads for Italy’s premier league, dealing with studs and world champions. But she’s already getting offers from abroad, and worked in the U.S. as head coach for the Vogelsinger Soccer Academy. Her contract with Milan ends in June. Speaking over the phone as kids scream in the background, she calls an energetic “Ciao Ciao!” to them. Her life goes on, yes, as a woman, and as a star.
But here’s an inevitable punch line for a woman in almost any field: She’s judged not only on the facility and footwork of her star players and recruits … but also on her sartorial choices. Spina dresses in what would, for most women, be fairly standard clothes for television interviews — like, um, skirts. Yet some in her field are awestruck. Like Lucchesi: “Wow,” he muses. “She can also be fashionable!”
- Silvia Marchetti, OZY Author Contact Silvia Marchetti