Letter from Rome: Morace takes on the men

The sleepy provincial town of Viterbo, near Rome, rarely hits the sporting headlines - in fact rarely makes the news at all. Even the long-desired promotion of their football team to the Third Division after a splendid season did not rate more than a few pars. But last week that all changed with the announcement of the team's new coach: Carolina Morace, ex-captain of the national squad, and the highest goalscorer in Italian women's football.

As one newspaper noted it was the shattering of a taboo, like the first McDonald's in Peking, but that this particular taboo - a woman coach in professional football - was one of the most entrenched.

The reaction to Morace's appointment would seem to back that up. Two and a half thousand faxes of congratulation from Italy and abroad have arrived at the headquarters of the club but the "ultras" - the hardcore live-and-die-for-it fans of Viterbo - are up in arms.

On television, supporters in Viterbo - all male - appeared decidedly disoriented and sceptical. In a way you can understand them, having finally made it into C1, the tifosi of Viterbo don't want any false moves. They want to stay in and, with a bit of luck, improve. They want results straight away. And then their club president names a female who is making her coaching debut.

The press coverage of the news was in many ways indicative of what Morace is up against. The questions inevitably turned to locker rooms and showers rather than formations or training strategies. "I have discovered in the past few days that the Italian male is scared of women. I realise this from the questions I am asked," the Venetian-born Morace complained.

"I realised that everyone would be watching me closely but not that they'd have their guns cocked. And it makes me angry to be judged before I have even started. I might fail but that has nothing to do with my sex."

However, Morace has always had a reputation as a straight talker. During her time as a player she frequently lambasted the Cinderella treatment reserved for women's football. And, under siege from hostile critics or journalists who patronised her, she has gone on the attack. The populist Rome daily Messagero headlined: "Dear Blokes, I'll surprise you with my game", the more sedate Corriere della Sera used: "Morace: my challenge to chauvinism".

When pressed for details of her personal life, the sorts of things that would never arise in an interview with a male coach, she did not mince words: "I'd prefer to be considered a lesbian than a whore. I'm not married. I preferred to concentrate on my career. It's my business whom I go to bed with and I don't have to answer to anybody about it."

The man behind Morace's appointment is the Perugian entrepreneur Luciano Gaucci, who also owns Perugia's Serie A football club. He bought Viterbo last November and it was under his impulse that the club hauled itself out of no man's land into professional competition. He has a reputation for headline-catching behaviour - he brought the Japanese player Hidetoshi Nakata to Perugia - and some say appointing a woman coach is no more than a publicity stunt.

On one thing, however, there is no disagreement. Morace knows football inside out. She first represented Italy at the age of 14 and went on to captain the national side. In her career on the field she scored 554 goals and was just pipped by Heidi Mohr as the women footballer of the century. In what they considered a compliment, some sports reporters referred to her as "un Baresi in gonnella", a Franco Baresi in a skirt.

Morace has a lot of things going for her beyond her experience as a player at club and national level. She's smart. Despite commitments to her sport at both club and national level, she continued her studies and in 1996 gained a law degree. She now works at a legal studio in Rome.

Sartre, Simone De Beauvoir and Andre Gide are among her favourite authors. The 35-year-old Morace is also a communicator, well known to football fans for her role in the TV sports programme Galagol where, unlike many of the others, she was not just a pretty face.

Though she plays down the fact that she is a woman doing what was traditionally a man's job, Morace is only too well aware of the responsibility she has taken on. If she flops, the macho Latin world of Italian football would probably use her as an excuse to block access to women seeking a more active and less decorative role.

One veteran football journalist admitted that he had some qualms about women in coaching roles but said that if anyone was up to the challenge it was Morace. "She's gutsy, ambitious, knows the game from inside and she's capable of blocking out all the media hype criticism and getting on with the job. Not many men coaches have all those qualities."

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