Anna Piccarelli Feature From TheGlobalGame.com
Californian Goalkeeper Leads her National Team to Success ... Wearing Italy's Colors
Special to TheGlobalGame.com
By Timothy F. Grainey and Anton Maksimov
Italy's goalkeeper Anna Maria Picarelli was the revelation of the 2009 European Women's Championships held in Finland in August. Only 24, Picarelli first led Italy to a shock 2-1 opening match win over England and then shutout Russia 2-0 during the group stage. Italy exited the tournament at the quarterfinals after a narrow 2-1 loss to the World and European Champions Germany. It came as a surprise to many that Picarelli is an American. Born and raised in the Los Angeles area, she began playing the sport at 5 and was switched into goal at age 14 when the starting keeper was hurt. Though she wasn't thrilled with the change at first, she kept with it and starred for four years at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, graduating in 2006.
Despite leading Pepperdine to two NCAA Sweet 16 playoff rounds in four years, Picarelli always fought a perception that her height-5'4"-was a liability, as most coaches look for keepers who are at least 5'10". Tim Ward, Pepperdine's head coach said, "we had some great victories because of her" and though her size scared away other coaches during the recruiting process, he saw great skills:
"What was cool about Anna is that a lot of people passed on her during the recruiting process because she's small for a goalkeeper and I had a chance to see her play enough to know that despite her size, she played huge. She's one of the best athletes we ever had in our program. Her quickness, her jumping ability and her spring were just outstanding. Her reflexes were laser sharp."
She was called up to a United States U-21 camp after finishing college but was told by the head coach, Jillian Ellis, that she was too short to ever make it at the full national team level. Ellis explained that Picarelli would be a "tactical disadvantage" when facing teams like Germany and Norway, with tall powerful strikers. Ward chuckled when remembering that tryout, explaining: "She's really good at dealing with crosses but visually she doesn't have that presence, but when you see her play and see her fly, she's out of this world."
Picarelli decided to try her luck in Italy, where her father was born. After some phone contacts with his help with interpreting, she flew to Verona during a vacation at the 2006 Mens's World Cup in Germany and was signed by Serie A side Bardolino after only an hour tryout. Even though she only played Italian Cup games her first season, Bardolino won the title when she saved three of five penalty kicks in the tiebreaker. She has been a part of three Serie A title winners during her time at Bardolino. She came to National Team head coach Pietro Ghedin's attention after a stirring 3-3 tie in the UEFA Women's Champions League versus Arsenal in 2007. She won her first cap in January 2008 and worked her way into the starter before the Euro Finals.
Her game improved in Italy where, compared to the U.S., the physical aspect was less important than footwork and technical work. Picarelli said that: "Playing in Italy made me learn to use my feet...the focus on your touch, even for a goalkeeper is just as important as being able to make a save. In three years, I've come a long way from distributing with my feet."
One challenge for American women playing abroad is that they can encounter far different perceptions of what are acceptable sports for women to play. Picarelli found that Italy was "a decent 15 years behind the U.S," explaining that:
"Many people don't even acknowledge women's soccer in Italy. Many times when traveling with my team, people would ask what we were. We would respond 'a soccer team.' And then the questions would start...'how many of you are on the field at a time'? We'd respond '11', then they would go on...'but the field is smaller right?' 'No'...'The ball is lighter'?... 'No'. 'The goals are smaller'?...'No.' 'You only play 35 minute halves?'... 'No'. It is very hard for people to grasp that we play just like the men."
In Italy, females have played with boys until age 14 because few clubs had female youth teams but beyond that age there were limited options. Picarelli feels that more opportunities for younger girls to play with girls will assist the growth of the game as well:
"You can notice the influence of men's soccer in the women's game, whereas in the U.S. the two are very different, each with its own image. Italy as a whole is still a very macho country. Women are breaking down stereotypes every day, but even in a country as advanced as it is, it is hard for Italians to break away from the traditional views of women.
As an established player for the top team in Italy, Anna can stay in Italy but wants to come back to the United States. Her fiancé is based in Los Angeles and she wants to be closer to her family. On the soccer side, she talks passionately about WPS: "There isn't any other league that plays at the same level, the same speed, and the same skill. My goal from graduation was to go overseas and prepare for the return of the league. Now that I feel more prepared I hope to get my foot in the door." She is hoping to be selected in the WPS general draft in January.
Anna Picarelli is a successful role model for a North American college grad who wants to continue her soccer career professionally, but does not have youth national team experience on her resume. Her advice to others following in her footsteps is to just "have the courage to do it." The language, cultural and playing aspects in training and games are radically different changes but that's where she has grown so much: "I've learned a lot having played in a different soccer environment for 3 years and I think every American can learn a thing or two overseas."
After shutting out tall, dominate strikers like Germany's Three-Time FIFA World Player of the Year Brigit Prinz and England's best player Kelly Smith during the European championships, Anna Picarelli is continuing to prove her detractors wrong. Small of stature, but large of heart, she could be an inspired roster addition for a WPS team for the 2010 season.
Tim Grainey is a regular contributor to World Football Pages in Canada as well as a freelance writer focused on women's soccer. Tim is writing a book entitled: Beyond Bend It Like Beckham: Women's Soccer as a Global Phenomena. Tim can be reached at Srigrainey@cox.net
Anton Maksimov operates LTA Agency Limited in Europe, a soccer management agency specializing in women's soccer. Anton formerly was the general manager of FC Indiana and attended the UEFA Women's Euro 2009 and the Women's African Championships in 2008 in Equatorial Guinea. Anton can be reached at email@example.com