- Landmark year for Italian women’s football as national team hit new heights
- Historic performance at FIFA Women's World Cup in France a particular highlight
- Elena Linari reflects on the importance of 2019 for Italy and her personally
"No one expected such a great result... not even us!"
The year 2019 will live long in the memory for Elena Linari and Italian women's football. Gli Azzurre returned to the FIFA Women's World Cup™ after a 20-year absence, but not even the most optimistic forecasts envisaged them finishing among the top eight.
However, the Tuscan-born defender reveals that the team soon realised that France 2019 could be ‘their' World Cup.
"It was when we equalised against Australia," she says with a beaming smile. "They were the strongest team in our group and we were losing to them, so even getting back on level terms seemed improbable."
But Italy not only cancelled out the Matildas' opening goal on their debut in France - they went on to score the winner in the 95th minute. "When we made it 2-1 in the last minute, it started to dawn on us that we could achieve something big – that this could be our World Cup."
In the end, Italy went down in the quarters-finals against eventual finalists the Netherlands. But by then Milena Bertolini’s charges had already made the football world sit up and take notice - and put the women’s game back home in the spotlight like never before.
"People are getting very attached to women's football. They follow us on TV and the social networks, and new sponsors are coming on board, something that would have been inconceivable only a few years ago. Furthermore, many girls are now applying to be taken on by the footballing academies of clubs like Juventus, Inter and AC Milan. The World Cup has given us that impetus."
Linari's three moments of 2019
- Round of 16 match against China PR at France 2019: "Everyone tells me I played really well, so I'll always remember that one."
- First goal for Atletico Madrid: "I’ll never forget that one either, as it was my first goal as a professional. It was in the league against Logrono and a special moment, because I wasn’t playing much and I got a vital goal for the team."
- The final of the Copa de la Reina: "We lost that final to Real Sociedad. However, it’s a game that will stay long in the memory as defeats can also help you grow a lot."
Today, as she looks back on the preceding 12 months, Linari is in no doubt about their significance: "2019 has been one of the best years of my life," she insists, while also admitting it brought some very difficult moments. "The last few months have been great, but I've really endured a lot," she says, before going on to explain why.
Out of her comfort zone
Linari is the only member of her national team to play her football outside Italy, having opted to spend the 2018/19 season with Atletico Madrid. "I came here because I wanted a tougher challenge. In Italy I was very comfortable and always in the starting XI, but I wanted to keep developing, and Atleti is the club that has enabled me to do that."
Getting out of her comfort zone has been a positive experience, albeit a difficult one. "I wasn't starting games, so gradually I had to change from the Elena I was in Italy, the one who always played, and become 'professional' Elena, which involved doing extra work on my game over and above team training and fixtures. That also led to me becoming a starter for the national team."
From understudy to undisputed starter
Linari ultimately had a successful year at her club, with Atleti winning the Spanish league and finishing runners-up in the cup, yet a few months into 2019 the defender was still not an automatic choice for her country.
All that changed after an unfortunate injury to Cecilia Salvai a few months before this year’s Women’s World Cup. When the chance came to partner her captain Sara Gama in the centre of defence, Linari was primed and ready to perform at her best.
At France 2019, she played every minute and performed exceptionally, so much so that Bertolini has not since tinkered with the central defensive pairing. Italy are now immersed in their qualifying campaign for UEFA EURO 2021, with Linari firmly established as one of the pillars of the team. "I draw strength from difficult times," she says by way of explanation.
And for next year...
Clearly fuelled with reserves of positivity, Linari had no shortage of goals when asked what she was hoping for in 2020.
"To remain as happy as I am now, and to be healthy, because my grandmother always tells me that health is so important – which is true," she said. "I’d like to win a lot of things with Atleti and qualify for the EURO with the national team. After the World Cup, people expect more from us. But that's a good thing!"