When Sara Gama and her Juventus Women teammates played for the first time at the club’s Allianz Stadium in Turin in March 2019, she knew the moment marked a significant leap forward in the acceptance of women’s football in Italy. More than 39,000 spectators filled the stadium, which until then had only been played in by men, breaking the previous 14,000 record for a women’s match in Italy. To top off the occasion, Juventus beat Fiorentina 1-0.
“There was a lot of emotion because it was the first time we played in such a big stadium, and in front of so many people,” said Gama, a celebrated defender who captains Juventus Women and the Italy women’s team. “We were aware that we were making history … but it wasn’t the only important thing that had happened in women’s football.”
Juventus Women were formed two years earlier after it became obligatory for top-flight men’s clubs to have a women’s team. In addition, the match at the Allianz came on the heels of the national side qualifying for a place in the 2019 Women’s World Cup for the first time in two decades.
Now Gama and her fellow Serie A female colleagues are celebrating another epoch-making change after finally being upgraded to professional status by the Italian Football Federation (FIGC). The change ends years of top-division female players earning capped salaries due to being recognised only as amateur athletes, and takes effect from 1 July, in time for the next season.
Gama, 33, was among those who fought hard for the upgrade, which removes a gross salary cap of €30,000 a season and entitles the women to contracts that include social security contributions such as health insurance and pensions.
The minimum wage currently agreed for a Serie A player aged between 19 and 23 is €20,263 a season, and €26,664 from age 24. However, Gama, who has become an emblem of the women’s game in Italy, is not expecting her wage to match that of her multimillion-earning male counterparts anytime soon.
“This is the minimum, so obviously there are players getting more, and of course we are not at the same level as the US women’s team, which recently won an incredible fight over equal pay,” she said. “I am quite practical and look at my realities: the first thing I need is to have the same working conditions as men, as this is a job we’re doing.”
Gama, who previously played for Paris Saint-Germain, said the change would help boost the credibility of Italian women’s football abroad, and would make the league more attractive to sponsors and foreign talent. “We want to be better and better and this will help the clubs to grow, so it’s win-win.”
Born in Trieste to an Italian mother and a Congolese father, Gama was passionate about football from an early age, playing football with the boys in her neighbourhood. As her talent flourished, she joined a youth football team.
“I was the only girl on the team,” she said. “It was normal for my teammates to see me play as we used to play together as kids, and I soon found my space on the team and had their respect. Of course, when we played matches the opponents were surprised to see a girl playing, and sceptical.”
Although the Serie A women’s league has existed in some shape or form since 1968, it was only in 2017 that the requirement for men’s Serie A clubs to have a women’s team was introduced. However, ACF Fiorentina was a step ahead of the game, having established a women’s squad a few years earlier.
“Fiorentina was the first company to believe in this movement,” said Daniela Sabatino, an attacker for Fiorentina’s women’s team and member of the national football team. “And so we’re really happy to finally be considered professional.”
Sabatino turns 37 in June and said she will only be able to enjoy the benefits of a professional contract for a short time. Recalling a period when women had to juggle training with their paid jobs, didn’t have physiotherapists and played on inadequate pitches, she said the change would inspire and mould further generations, while hopefully earning the women’s game a higher profile in Italian media coverage.
Like Gama, Sabatino, who was born in a small town in the Abruzzo region, said she has always been passionate about football. “My mother said I was born with a football,” she added. “I played it always, and dreamed of becoming professional. Although I now hope that one day women can earn as much as men.”
Both women are now preparing for Italy’s participation in the Women’s Euro 2022 tournament, being held in England this summer, and for crucial World Cup 2023 qualifiers later in the year.
“Our destiny is in our hands,” said Gama. “It’s important for Italy to remain on the big stage. We got there in 2019 for the first time in 20 years, and now it’s important to be there again.”
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