At Web Summit 2021 in Lisbon, I interviewed Arianna Criscione, who is the former goal keeper of Paris Saint-Germain (PSG). We spoke about the end of her professional football career and her life after football. Read her inspiring story below!
Hi Arianna and welcome, can you introduce yourself? Can you share your One Minute Elevator Pitch?
My Name is Arianna Criscione and I’m a recently retired professional football player. I finished my career very happily, winning the first league title. I am currently the Director of Women’s Football at N3XT Sports, based in Barcelona, and we’re trying to help build structure and strategy within women’s football. This vertical on women’s football is the latest addition to the portfolio of services that the company offers.
I hear you have a nice story about meeting someone on a plane?
Yes, I do and to understand the story better, I need to go a little further back…
In 2015 I had a serious injury – I tore my ACL and my PCL. It was a really challenging time and I had a very hard time coming back and recovering. I wasn’t sure if I would ever play again. So, when I was finally able to play again, I joined smaller teams to see if I could play and then get back into the bigger teams in the league.
I came back slowly, and enjoyed it. I was playing in Scandinavia and I was still trying to find new clubs in Europe. It’s quite hard to do this though as the Scandinavian season finishes in the Fall and obviously the European season is already in the middle of the swing of things.
I decided to move back to France, where my now fiancé lives. We trained together, and we worked together and I stayed fit but I still wasn’t able to find a club in that transfer period.
My fiancé’s career took us to the north of France. It was then that I sat down with him and had a deep conversation with him about where I wanted my football career to go. By this time, I was already in my thirties.
As a family, we decided it would be better for me to stay in France for the time being, continue my football career and then try to go back to Scandinavia or somewhere similar. I knew I wasn’t going to get back on the Italian National Team and I was thinking about just how we could build our life together as a family.
I decided to play in France in the Second Division. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t for me.
At that point, I decided, well, maybe if I don’t love playing football anymore, then maybe I shouldn’t be doing it.
I looked around for what else I could do and how I could start building a future off-field. I had qualifications, a university degree from the US, but in France you really need a master’s degree. I found the master’s degree I wanted to do at the FBA (Football Business Academy) and I was able to do modules online, which was great as it still allowed me to play football.
Then I got an internship in the SL Benfica Marketing and Sales Department . This was a bit of a strange time for me again because I wasn’t playing football, but I hadn’t officially retired so I didn’t know what I was.
I got caught between the two worlds. I thought about playing with the Benfica Women’s team because they had just started but then I was worried that if I went back to football I wouldn’t be progressing my off field career.
I finished my internship in Portugal and went back to France. I finished my master’s and was like – what do I do now?
I tried a lot of networking and one of my professors, who became a great friend and mentor, invited me to become the project manager at the Women’s European Freestyle Championships.
Two things happened that really made me miss football. I project managed the first ever Freestyle Women’s Championships, which was so much fun. Just working with these lovely women who were so passionate about freestyle and football and what they were doing. It was the first time that year that I really missed playing. I was still part of football and was still fit but I wasn’t in it anymore and I missed it. It made me feel that I wasn’t done yet – my career in football wasn’t done.
The second thing that happened was that I went to the Champions League final. It was amazing. I made a vow to myself that I would be in the league and at the final again. I didn’t know where or how but I promised myself I’d make it happen.
This was when something truly serendipitous happened.
I found myself with a first class ticket on a plane back to France. I found myself sitting behind a gentleman who had European Club letterheads on the papers next to him. I was still excited about the Women’s Champions League so asked if he’d gone too and we started speaking. He invited me to sit next to him and that was that. I was seated next to Bruno Cheyrou, the then sporting director of PSG’s women’s team.
Eventually, the conversation slowed and he’d fallen asleep. As the plane landed, it bounced and he woke up. He turned to me and asked me if I still wanted to play football. It was fate, like a lightning moment.
He said that they needed a goalkeeper.
I had two voices in my head, the one that said I was in my mid thirties, I’d had a difficult year and I needed a job too. The other, the little girl who loves playing football, was saying, ‘Yes, yes of course I’ll sign the papers!’
But, I’d studied so hard for my master’s and worked so much on my career in business off the field – I wanted to do both.
I was so lucky.
I got my dream. I got to play on the team and when I wasn’t playing I would go to the offices. I was simultaneously playing professional football and working for PSG Women’s Sponsoring to elevate and promote the women’s game. It was an amazing position to be in.
That takes a lot of energy and a lot of support?
Yes, and a lot of coffee!
But it was a personal dream for me. I wanted my teammates; I wanted us to play well and win, to be successful as a team and enjoyed working hard on the field. It wasn’t just for me, it was for women’s football. It was a really important position to be in, to be able to show that women can do more and be more within the club.
It was a strange and unique opportunity to help promote women’s football on and off the pitch. It’s been compared to a fairy tale.
It reminds me of an interview I did with Melanie Perkins, the founder of Canva, two years ago. She said, ‘ You can only grow as big as your dreams.’ The question now is what is your target for the future, your dream?
My dream? I want to be president of FIFA one day!
But in the meantime, I want to continue to create and build football, especially women’s football. I really want to see the game continue to develop. I want to see more clubs, organizations and stakeholders take the women’s game more seriously. Not to just accept it but see it as a viable investment.
At the moment, they are not actually seeing as a way to create investment. We (N3XT Sports) want to show them that we can do things differently from the men’s game. We have a blank sheet to create women’s football the way we want it to be and can bring more of a business and a start-up idea to the women’s game through the branding.
There’s quite a bit to be done. The women’s team is a little different. We have to show people who’s on the field and let people know who these players are. I think it’s a really exciting moment to be building the game and positively promoting it. It’s good to see changes happening.
What has been the hardest part about moving between the two roles – the player and the business woman?
I think that ‘changing’ careers at an older age is difficult. It’s like you are starting again but you are older and it’s more complicated sometimes for people to hire you because a lot of the positions are entry level.
I also think it’s hard to quantify your experience. People forget that the experience players have is actually extremely valuable within the business. I think in the US they look at it differently
I’d agree. When I go to the US, I feel this atmosphere of possibility. I see people in Belgium that come out of sports roles to do really amazing stuff, people that are good directors because they can be in a team, they can take the lead and they want to win. Why do you think more people don’t make the transition from on the field to off-field roles?
I think it’s confidence. I think they just need a bit of help and see that it is possible.
Some of them will become professional football players, others will not but even if they don’t make it professional, it is not the end. I would really love for women, and young girls especially, to know that if they want to continue in the game, there are so many opportunities within football and sports where they can work, not just in coaching.
I really feel that women need to be encouraged and be shown that there are other ways that they can have a huge impact. I believe, without a doubt, there’s a position for them and they just need to go for it.
Last question, because our time is up: are you using social media to create awareness for women’s football related topics? And if yes, which channel?
I use Linkedin a lot to share with the wider community what is happening in the game. The good and the bad, I try to keep it positive but we have know the bad in order to improve.
Thank you Arianna for this really inspiring conversation!