“Last season during a press conference I said, ‘We are a five-year-old child that goes to a primary school and we are playing against people at university.’”
The words of from the man at the helm of Italian giants Juventus, their women’s team sporting director, Stefano Braghin.
It may seem strange terminology for one of the most recognizable names in world football, but that is how Braghin views, potentially fairly, a side that was only created, as referenced, five years ago.
This week they will take on European champions Lyon in the Champions League and following that a double-header with Arsenal, one of the pioneers of the women’s game, and they want to compete, as they did last season during their first run to the quarterfinals, but it’s here where Braghin expands on his initial point.
“It was a joke, but the current situation is we are very young in the game. There are three things we are really focused on for the future to grow up and compete with these teams.
“The recruitment of young players in Italy overall, because we are struggling with numbers. What I have noticed in Lyon and Arsenal is the average player is stronger than our average player. So forget the Champions League for now because that is a matter of money. If I look at the bench of their teams, they are more established than us, they have more choices than us, so we have to recruit very well, improve our work in the academy to have good homegrown players too.
“We are smart with our international signings. Players like Pauline [Peyraud-Magnin], she is a top goalkeeper, but maybe we pick up players who need a new environment, or younger players we can intercept before the top clubs. The third pillar of this strategy is to increase the visibility and credibility of our project to attract sponsors and broadcasters in the country so we can help this project and give us the chance to go to the market and compete with the top clubs.”
Across 45 minutes, Braghin openly lays out the basics of how he sees Juventus in the modern game and the future, while also discussing the birth of the club back in 2017, the difficult decisions he has had to make over those five years, including replacing Rita Guarino with Joe Montemurro, and his worries over the sustainability of the women’s game in Italy at the moment.
Braghin took up his current role in 2017 after running the academy on the men’s side of the club from 2012, juggling the two roles for a year before stepping solely into the women’s side in 2018, a choice he says he is “very happy” with after 20 years of working in the men’s game.
Speaking from his office in the club’s training ground in Turin, it is a slightly quieter period now for Braghin who admits his busiest period is the summer transfer window, but quiet is a relative term for someone tasked with the day-to-day running of a major women’s football club.
“This could sound like a joke, but it’s not a joke, I think the biggest job of a sporting director is once the team is done, you have to make it work,” he said.
“Starting from day one of preseason, you have to work on relationships of everyone, not just the players and coaches — everyone. It’s so important because it can have an effect either good or bad on the potential of the team. The potential is the starting point, the final result is determined by the combination between the potential and the relationships between all elements involved, and that’s my main job I think. To keep everyone focused on a common target that has to be bigger than the individual targets, and that can be a tough challenge.”
Despite being a brand-new team built from scratch, largely with Italian players, Juventus has won the Serie A title in all five years of the club’s existence, and become a more established side in Europe.
Last season, they beat Chelsea and Wolfsburg on their way to getting out of a tough group, and beat Lyon in the first leg of their quarterfinal, narrowly going out after a 1–3 loss in the return match in France.
When I ask where he feels Juventus is when looking at the whole five years, he admits they are a “bit ahead” of where he expected on the football side, and in line with expectations when it comes to off-the-field matters.
“It was difficult to imagine starting from zero, you win five titles in a row,” he reflected. “What we are looking for is to have an established standing in Europe. Every year gets more difficult because everyone is investing more and more, but we are really focused to have good results in Europe.
“That’s the reason why we decided to change our coach, even though we won four titles in a row, we decided to go for an international coach because we are a global club, an international brand in some way, and to be recognized as a club at a certain level was important for us and that’s what we’re looking for in the next few years — to be in the top eight ranking and to be competitive in Europe.
“Reaching the quarterfinals was really fantastic, but I always say you have to reach it three or four times to say you are at that level, that you are one of the top eight, and that’s what we want to do and we are working more with an international perspective without of course losing the attention on the national leagues, which is important for our perception within the country.”
When speaking about changing the coach, Braghin is referring to swapping Italian legend Rita Guarino for former Arsenal head coach Joe Montemurro, who is the current head coach at the club and the man tasked with taking the club forward.
His first season in charge was a success both domestically and in Europe, but the swap was one of the toughest decisions Braghin has had to make, but one he feels has been justified.
“I was attracted by his style of football, it’s quite particular. We played Arsenal in 2018 in a friendly and I was really surprised by how fluent it was, all the rotation, very positional, very modern, not stuck in the same system. He’s a specialist of women’s football with big international experience. Rita is one of the best coaches I’ve ever had, but she was still growing as an international coach and Joe already had that.
“We beat Lyon, we beat Wolfsburg, we knocked out Chelsea because Joe convinced our players we could play these games. In the past, we were scared. We played five defenders, five midfielders, we tried not to lose; with Joe we try to win, with many of the same players. The perception of the other teams changed, they started to worry about us a bit more and we did something, we punched above our weight last season for sure. You can’t do that every season, but 90 percent of that is Joe’s approach. He came here and said, ‘We are a top team,’ and we have to play against them and see what happens.”
Domestically, all looks rosy for Juventus. But after five successive titles, Serie A and Italian football is growing, with other major clubs such as AC Milan, Inter Milan, Roma, and Napoli following in the club’s footsteps and embracing women’s football.
Roma is competing in the Champions League group stage for the first time this season, and the strength of the league means Juventus sits only fourth in the league so far this season and lost their first game of the season at the weekend 3–4 to AC Milan.
Roma, Fiorentina, and Inter all sit above Montemurro’s side at the moment and with the league starting to thrive, Braghin admits there is a balance now between the bigger picture of all the clubs together still trying to grow the game in a country catching up to some of the top European nations, and the clubs looking after themselves in the chase for trophies and glory.
“We are all together in the same war. For more rights, more money, more investors, but at a certain point the individual interest becomes bigger, so it’s a hard balance.
“For example, we’d like to have more foreign players for the quality of the game [clubs can currently have 10 maximum in a squad of 20]. Some other clubs don’t, they agree the product has to keep getting better, but once you try to find a solution they are not happy because it would mean they are weaker than us.
“It is tricky to find a balance. Now, we are discussing for example the calendar because the league didn’t consider us and Roma play Champions League, the calendar was made just for TV and we are struggling to get Italy a better ranking for us to avoid the preliminary rounds. The federation has one vision, the clubs have another, that’s natural, so it’s a difficult balance.”
While the top end of Serie A is thriving, some clubs are struggling financially to get by, with clubs such as Como and Pomigliano not having a major men’s side to rely on.
Braghin says it’s difficult to ensure every team is competitive with the player pool across Italy still quite small compared to its rival nations, one of the reasons he says he wants the federation to allow more wiggle room for foreign signings, even if that too would likely benefit the bigger names and further the gap between top and bottom.
He will go on to give an honest assessment regarding his worries for the sport in Italy later in our interview, but international signings has become a bigger part of the Juventus strategy, naturally given the name, the brand, and the size of the club around the world.
The club can now call upon talented young Canadian midfielder Julia Grosso, as well as the more experienced Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir, previously of Lyon, while Dutch forward Lineth Beerensteyn joined in the summer from Bayern Munich.
Juventus also has several Scandinavian players, but surprisingly despite the size of a club like Juventus, Braghin says the budget isn’t yet there to go and sign the top, top players, and expands on why he and Montemurro have to be smart in how they recruit, but also that they are now in a position to resist interest from elsewhere in their players.
“I talk to Joe all the time. The kind of players we can have are top players maybe struggling in top clubs for many different reasons, or we intercept young talent like [Amanda] Nildén, like [Lina] Hurtig, who was sold to Arsenal. Our meetings are really focused on key positions and our philosophy. We go straight to the point. If we need a defender, we look at young defenders or defenders not playing in their top clubs.
“I don’t participate in the bids with the top clubs because we can’t afford and Joe knows that. But more players are more attracted now, agents call me now, which didn’t happen in the past, they didn’t even answer when I made the first calls in 2017. They are curious, and maybe they don’t sign now, but they see people are talking about us and seeing what’s going on with Juventus. Some top players who we can’t sign for budget reasons have looked at us, investigated us, and that makes me confident for the future because if every season we can offer a bit more, we can start to build something. We are a big brand in football and that helps a lot. When I say Juventus, people sit down and listen, and I use that a lot to be honest!
“This summer we had players approached and we resisted, and players wanted to stay too. In a World Cup season, all the players want to play and they play here. In the future, I think we can be there, but we sell players too at good profit because we need to do that to still finance our project. Every Sunday I look at the scouts on the list and all the main European clubs are usually in our stands, and that means a lot.”
As our chat comes to a close, Braghin is keen to emphasize that while there is a lot of good going on in Serie A at the moment as the top clubs continue to invest in women’s football, he is also keen to exert caution on how quickly things are growing in order for it to not grow too fast and become unsustainable, something he admits he is concerned about.
“It’s growing up really fast. Clubs are opening up the main stadiums, more fans are coming, we gain a lot in reputation and credibility of the project. The professionalism is good on one side, but has a huge impact in costs which has not been balanced by good revenues and some smaller teams are really struggling with the professional set up to make it sustainable.
“We need a sustainable league for the project because three or four teams is not enough to say we are in good health. All the clubs have to be in good health. Public interest, media attention, we are getting better and better. I’m just a bit worried about the sustainability if we don’t have more investment from sponsors and broadcast. It’s a bubble which seems fantastic, but it can later explode and we need something stronger, that’s my only concern for the future. The interest is huge. In Italy, if you offer a good project, people are on your side, whether it’s men, women, or academy. It’s very easy here to have support because if a football game is on TV, whoever it is, people play.”
Is it being discussed? Braghin says it’s “ongoing” when it comes to how they can ensure things don’t get out of control and grow faster than the clubs can keep up with, and believes it will be hard to attract newer fans if games become too one-sided if the gap between top and bottom continue to grow.
“We want to attract investment and to get that you need a good product, good players, good coaches. It’s a matter of what you offer to the people and honestly, not all our games are that attractive.
“This is the real challenge, the rest is just football. You have your pathway, we will get there, we have the chance, but it has to be done in a sustainable environment or else we waste time and money and effort for nothing.”
And as for Juventus? They are five years into their project and five titles down, although number six looks like an ever-increasing challenge for Braghin and Montemurro.
Braghin says Juventus, for now, remains the “underdog” as it heads into a crunch tie with Lyon, and admits the Champions League is the target he will focus on most across the next five years.
“Our long-term plan is we want to be regularly in the final eight in the Champions League — hopefully more than eight!
“Sometimes that [being the underdog] is better because we have less pressure, but we want to be there. To say we will win is too much, because you never know, but we want to challenge.”