Tuscany is a place of many distractions. Florence is famous for its art, Pisa for its leaning architecture and Siena for having arguably the most famous horse race in the world. But if you head south of Florence on the Autostrada Firenze-Siena, you will soon arrive in a small, humble place called Poggibonsi.
Though surrounded by bigger towns, it is the local football club that is setting an example for others to follow in not only Italian but world football.
Poggibonsi Calcio is a club that for a time mixed brief, relative success with tragedy. In the 1980s, the club bounced between Serie C2 and Serie D under various ownerships but suffered the unimaginable trauma of losing two of its star players, Paolo Pellegrini and Moreno Niccolai, who died in a car crash in 1985 returning from a game they’d played in.
In 1988, disaster befell the club again, as 24-year-old midfielder Stefano Lotti slumped to the floor in the middle of a 3-0 victory over Tiberis and was pronounced dead in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. The small town with a population of 29,000 people was again in mourning for a second time in three years, and to remember the youngster, the club renamed their stadium "Stadio Stefano Lotti."
Glad to get the '80s out of the way, it has been a similar period for the Giallorossi (red-and-yellows) in the past two decades, moving up and down between the fourth and fifth divisions living a tranquil existence—that was, until 2010 when the club made an announcement that would raise eyebrows across boardrooms the length and breadth of the peninsula.
Antonello Pianigiani had been a director at Siena during the '90s before deciding to purchase 51 per cent of Poggibonsi in 2008, in turn becoming the president. After staying in Serie C2 for two seasons (the second under legendary Italian coach Aldo Firicano), Pianigiani bought the remaining 49 per cent of the club.
It was then that he announced that his 21-year-old daughter Elena would become the club’s vice-president, a controversial move given the lack of women in high positions within Italian football. Indeed, in recent years, Rosella Sensi (who inherited AS Roma upon her father Franco’s death in 2008), and Barbara Berlusconi, who works under her famous father at Milan, are two of only a select few women who have high-up positions within the game.
Back in 1999, Italian Carolina Morace became the first-ever female coach of an Italian men’s professional side, leading third-division Viterbese for two games in 1999 before resigning, citing interference from controversial owner Luciano Gaucci (a man who as owner of Perugia in 2003 signed Colonel Gaddafi’s son, Al-Saadi).
As I spoke to Elena, however, it became clear that she is aware of the world she has entered. Speaking with calmness and humour, she recounted the story of how she entered the male-dominated Italian game.
"In 2010 when my father asked me to join Poggibonsi, I didn’t think twice," she said. "It was unusual because I was only 21. When you’re that age, it’s usual for a father to give his daughter a new bag, not a football team."
Elena then told me how her love affair with football evolved, explaining, "My passion began as a 10-year-old when my Dad was involved at our home-town club Siena. We were promoted to Serie B and I remember the fantastic atmosphere around the city; I became the team’s mascot!
"Calcio is very macho, but something is certainly changing with more women appearing, though I believe purely technical aspects are suitable for only men. I do think women are essential, however, companies are companies and it’s always good to have a woman, as we can make cold decisions when the case requires it."
This is something that French Ligue 2 side Clermont Foot agree with, making headlines this summer when appointing Helena Costa as the first woman to coach a professional men's team in France.
Though Costa quit before the season started, Clermont owner Claude Michy pressed ahead and signed Corinne Diacre to lead the side, whose only previous coaching experience was leading women’s side ASJ Soyaux and working as France’s assistant coach.
But as Michy told me, the pressures are the same regardless of gender. "There is no specific pressure. Any coach who arrives in their first year is under immediate scrutiny," Michy said. "We must give her (Diacre) time to transmit her ideas."
When I asked him if he experienced any negativity following the appointment, Michy explained how the decision was his alone and he would look to take responsibility away from Diacre.
"I have the luxury of making decisions without consulting anyone," Michy said. "I took this decision alone so I am responsible for any bad reviews we receive. We will take stock of things at the end of the year."
Diacre’s side has struggled so far, winning only one of its eight games and tied for last, though its recent form has improved, losing only one of the last four games. When I asked Pianigiani about Clermont’s unique situation, she offered her support
"It was a brave choice," she said. "I send big 'Good Luck!' to the coach. She is a great woman to manage a dressing room. They have gained a new supporter!"
Though she sends regards towards central France, Poggibonsi’s second-in-command remains focussed on the job in hand ("...getting the Giallorossi back into Serie C is my aim").
She does have a local derby with Siena to look forward to this season after they were expelled from Serie B over the summer for financial irregularities. After many years supporting the club, how will it feel seeing her current side facing her first love?
"Siena’s president is a close family friend, so we agreed to go for pizza after the game regardless of the result," Pianigiani said. "Hopefully it will finish 1-1 so we’re all happy!"
Poggibonsi have started the season with three consecutive 0-0 draws as they aim to bounce back following relegation last season. Speaking to Pianigiani, it was clear I was conversing with a real football person who understands the game better than most. She is hopeful more women will appear in the men’s game in the coming years, though she warns of the emotions that take over once involved.
"You're tense and anxious before and during the game, and your mood depends on the outcome: If you win, you're elated and start the working week on the right foot. But if you lose, you want to go straight to bed!"
Charles Ducksbury is a European football expert who has written for CNN, When Saturday Comes and many others.
All quotes obtained firsthand.