The just-concluded FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup Ambassador Tour saw New Zealand footballing legends Michele Cox and Wynton Rufer visiting six of this country's foremost footballing centres, including the four World Cup host cities - Auckland, Christchurch, Hamilton and Wellington.
Joining them on their crusade was a first-time visitor to these shores, but when it comes to venturing into the unknown, Italian women's footballing legend Carolina Morace is no stranger to such pioneering practices.
In her capacity as a FIFA Ambassador for Women's Football, the 44-year-old has found spreading the gospel of the beautiful game - such as throughout Aotearoa on this journey - to be a very straightforward and immensely satisfying exercise.
How she wishes La Federazione Italiana Giuoco Calcio - the Italian Football Federation - had been as open-minded and embracing of the women's game during her tenure as national women's coach!
“We are a country of incredible history and culture in general. Yet it was easier for me to talk about men's football to the wider audience in Italy, in my capacity as a TV commentator, than it was to talk about women's football inside the FIGC!
“The Federation doesn't care about women's football. For the FIGC, women's football is a problem. They don't support it, because in Italy only the professional men's game is important - the source of money and sponsors.
“Hence in Italy, we don't have a plan to develop women's football”, the frustration clearly evident in Morace's tone as she speaks. “This is the reason I left my Federation. I was coach for five years, and during that time, my staff and I regularly fought with the FIGC for the rights of the women's game.
“Even then, the Federation wouldn't listen, and still doesn't. Just ensuring that the senior and U-19 women's squads always met regularly to see what they were doing and what their plan of development was, and that they would be entered in every single major UEFA Women's Championships, proved to be a tremendous battle.
“That was the legacy, the programme I left behind”, and one which has been rewarded just three years after Morace's departure from the post. Italy's U-19 women's squad recently downed Norway 1-0 in the final of the UEFA U-19 Women's Championships in France to record the country's first women's footballing triumph.
“I'm proud for the girls”, beams Morace, “because they won largely as a result of their own merits, not with the support of the FIGC, even though they are giving each of the girls a medal in thanks for this success.
“This is probably a very strong team, a very strong cycle, and this team's own strength has led to the U-19 crown”, declares a lady who guided Italy to both the 2001 and 2005 UEFA European Women's Championship Finals during her stewardship.
Prior to taking up the coaching reins, Carolina Morace played the game, and how! “Everybody knew who I was when I was playing. The papers only needed to say Carolina - not Carolina Morace - in the headline, and everybody knew who Carolina was!”
One look at her footballing CV, and it's little wonder! She made her international debut as a fourteen-year-old against Yugoslavia in 1978, the first of 153 appearances for the Italian national team, the Azzurre, in which she scored 105 goals.
There are numerous other highlights, particularly at club level - over 500 goals, twelve Scudetti (Italian championships) and four Italian Cups with eight different teams, and a staggering thirteen Capocannonieri - Italy's top goalscorer award, eleven of which were won in successive seasons, 1988-9 to 1998-9.
“There were no strong clubs in Italy during my playing days, so when a team wanted to win the championship, they recruited me because I scored a lot of goals”, says the prolific markswoman with the personality to match.
“Every role in football has its own personality and
character. Each player has their own unique position. They are born to play in a particular role. For every single role, there is something within yourself that makes you belong to that role, that position on the field.
“I don't decide if I'm a forward, or a midfielder, or a defender. It's the personality and attitude. You must have the personality to be an attacker. That's the reason why I was a very good goalscorer.
“Nowadays I play tennis, and generally female players don't attack the net. I attack the net because I was a forward - to me it's normal to attack the net!”
That's one aspect of the game which hasn't changed since Carolina's playing days. But so much else has, both in terms of the opportunities available to players, and the playing of the game itself.
“Let me say firstly that I'm very proud of my career. It's given me massive satisfaction. One of my proudest achievements is that I'm the only player, male or female, to have scored four goals in a game at Wembley. So I've no regrets. I did everything possible in my playing career.
“Nowadays the game is faster and players fitter. So the technical play nowadays is faster than in the past. I know I played with team-mates that had very good technical ability in the past, and today I can see that still. But the big change is the tactical game.
“In Italy, the tactical aspects have certainly changed. My country was perhaps the first in the world to play the tactical game.
“Women's football in Italy is starting to get more dignity and respect. too. In the past, when I was playing, I would appear in the newspapers often, but nowadays, none of the players make the papers - we don't know their names, which makes me very upset and sad.
“When I was younger and playing football, there weren't many girls called Carolina at the time. When I was playing for the national team in the mid to late eighties, the leading female player was Carolina Morace, and for the boys it was Diego Armando Maradona”.
Who? Cue a burst of laughter from a lady whose exploits seem to have inspired a generation. “They did a story on the TV news one afternoon, at the end of which the host said, “From now on, all the boys will be called Diego, and all the girls Carolina”. Interestingly enough, there are a lot of girls who play women's football in Italy today called Carolina”.
You certainly don't find many coaches of that name, particularly in men's football. It wasn't the case around the turn of the century, however.
“I accepted the challenge of coaching Viterbese in Serie C because, first of all, I was a coach, and secondly, because I knew I had the ability and the skills. I did the coaching course - the only female - with all the guys, so I knew that my ability was no less, and maybe better, than the boys, so I could take on the challenge easily - I could do it!
“When I trained the male team, it was difficult only for the first 20 - 25 days. I think that's the case for
every coach, because in that period, the team is learning my methodology and my philosophy. They're getting to know me, and I them. After this time, it's good.
“One of the things that the male players really appreciated about my coaching was the fact that I was very open when I made selection decisions. If a player had to sit on the bench or go in the stand, I would tell them face-to-face and explain why. The players appreciated that, because previous coaches had praised them, then left them off the team-sheet and sitting in the stands without any explanation.
“It's not because I'm a woman. It's my way of dealing with people. They really loved the fact that they were treated not just as football players, but as human beings. When I decided to resign, every single player called me - they backed me to the hilt. I don't believe it was because I was a female, but much more because of my attitude, personality and passion.
“If I could turn back time, I would not resign - it's certainly not something I`d do today. I made a mistake in resigning, even if my reasons for doing so were the right ones”.
Heavy media pressure prompted Carolina to curtail her involvement with the club, whose President was, shall we say, more supportive of the critics than of his coach at this time!
The experience leaves her well-placed to compare the men's and women's games. Her views are enlightening. “Men rely more on their individual skills in a situation, thus tend to be more creative than women, who rely more on the others around them - involve their team-mates more, in other words.
“Another difference arises if there is a problem in the dressing room. While men would speak up, and sort it out there and then before moving on, women will prolong the issue - women are like that!”
Cue more laughter, after which, the subject of women playing football is embraced. “In New Zealand, football is not the main sport for men, but it is for women. It's the same in the USA. In Europe, football is the main sport for men, of course. Because it's a men's game, there are many preconceptions about women playing football.
“For example, women who play football are perceived as being masculine, with funny legs, too ugly, etc., which is not the case. We have some beautiful girls who play football, as we have seen in China last year and this (at the Women's World Cup Finals and the Olympic Games), and will again see at the forthcoming U-17 Finals.
“In Italy, we have a lot of these stupid preconceptions. One way of starting to change the minds of sexists / chauvinists is that they should really watch women's football played by, e.g. Germany, USA and other countries in which there are outstanding female players.
“This will help them understand that the quality of women's football is as high as the men's game. Unfortunately, women's football isn't shown on TV in Italy, so …”
It will be shown here, however, with Sky TV following on from their coverage of the Football Ferns' matches at the 2007 FIFA Women's World Cup Finals by covering every game of the inaugural FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup Finals live.
Carolina Morace is delighted that New Zealanders are getting the chance to see women's football at its best in their own country over the course of the next few weeks, and that the activities she contributed to during her visit prior to the tournament will be part of the legacy FIFA hopes the host nation will enjoy long after NZ `08 is consigned to the history books.
With regard to her own legacy to the women's game, however, the question prompted the Venice-born lawyer, teacher and football commentator to pause for a moment. Her considered response was worth the wait.
“Everybody considers me to have been one of the strongest female players in the world. I'm happy about that”, smiles one of women's football's true pioneers.