It was no coincidence that, as soon as the match official signalled a foul on Italy captain Martina Rosucci, it was Elena Linari who strode straight over to pick up the ball. After all, the defender is the Azzurrine’s designated free-kick taker and, in their opening game of the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup Japan 2012, the moment had arrived for the gifted right-footer to put months of training into practice.
“I simply couldn’t believe it when I scored, even now I don’t think I can explain how I did it,” said Linari to FIFA.com, shortly after the 1-1 draw in which she arrowed an inch-perfect set-piece strike from distance into the top corner of Brazil keeper Daniele's net. “When I pick up the ball to take a free-kick, and it was the same today, I just think about getting my technique right and hitting the target. I do train hard, but even so that shot was truly unbelievable.”
Linari’s wondergoal – which opened the scoring after 38 minutes – had significance aplenty for the No14, who is more used to catching the eye with defensive prowess than attacking flair. “It was the second of my [international] career and of course the most spectacular,” she said with a smile. “It was also our first of this World Cup. It was a dream of mine to score here and I’m really happy to have made it come true.”
What must have made the achievement all the sweeter was the presence of her family in the stands, with the 18-year-old’s loved ones making the lengthy journey to Japan to support her at the global showpiece. Linari subsequently dedicated her goal to them, a gesture which led to her father being almost overcome with emotion and pride as he saw his daughter onto the coach that would take the Italian team back to their hotel.
“When I saw the ball go in I was so happy, because it was a really lovely shot – an incredible piece of technique,” said Diego Linari to FIFA.com, while standing at Elena’s side. “It’s great to see her like that, and I want to give her all the support I can so she can achieve her ambition for the future, which is to become a professional player.”
Happiness tinged with regret
Though undoubtedly a special day for the Linari family, the end result ended up somewhat disappointing for the Italian squad as a whole. Having gone in front and wasted chances to extend their lead, Italy's hopes of taking all three points in a tough Group B were dashed when Brazil’s Amanda scored a fine individual equaliser in injury time.
“We really wanted to win and I’m sad because we came so close,” said Linari, of AFC Firenze. “It’s an even group and we’re up against three teams with very different styles, but I think Italy can beat both Korea Republic and Nigeria if we play with enough spirit.”
On the evidence of this performance, spirit is something Corrado Corradini’s charges are not lacking. Indeed, though this Italian side does not appear overly endowed with skilled ball players, discipline and defensive steel were certainly in evidence.
“That’s the style our country’s known for, but in our friendly matches we’ve been making mistakes [at the back],” said the imposing central defender. “Today, though, I think we found an extra gear because it was a World Cup match. That really got everyone going.”
The young Azzurrine will have to continue in a similarly hard-battling vein if they wish to build on their solid start and make a real splash on their return to the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup scene after an eight-year absence. What is more, a positive campaign would undoubtedly encourage future generations and give the players’ own careers a healthy boost.
“This World Cup could really help the development of the women’s game in Italy, and perhaps motivate more girls to take up the sport,” said Linari as the conversation concluded. “It’d mean a lot to us all if we could make that happen,” she added and, whether she is aware of it or not, her phenomenal strike could already have taken Italy some way towards achieving that mission.