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'There are things I hold onto dearly - her class, her accent and her beautiful smile'

Italian football legend Carolina Morace pays tribute to her late friend Anne O’Brien, a pioneering, revolutionary but unheralded icon.

Anne O'Brien pictured with her mother Rose in Paris in 1975.
Anne O'Brien pictured with her mother Rose in Paris in 1975.
Image: Tony O'Brien/The O'Brien family

CAROLINA MORACE WAS in her early teens when she came across Anne O’Brien for the first time.

And even 40 years later, the memory remains a vivid one.  

The Dubliner had landed a move to Lazio in 1976, having turned heads with her performances for Stade de Reims in France, and had been in the Italian capital for two seasons when she and her teammates hosted a side from way up north called Belluno. 

Lazio were a solid outfit and would win the Scudetto the following season. Anne was an imperious trequartista, effortlessly linking midfield with attack. But there was another eye-catching player on the pitch that day: Morace. 

Like Anne back in Ireland, she was also a prodigy. At 11, she joined her first club in Venice and her innate and explosive goalscoring abilities ensured immediate respect and admiration from the boys around her. Just a few years later, she signed for Belluno and started playing professional women’s football. 

“Anne was Lazio’s number 10,” Morace tells The42, having reached out after the publication of this recent feature article

She was an amazing player. She was smart, she had class but she was dynamic too and she’d never stop running because it came so easily to her. That night in Rome, she came up to me during the match. I was just 14 but in a Roman accent she said to me, ‘A regazzi sei proprio brava! ‘Young girl, you are very good!’”   

Anne would win back-to-back championships and a Coppa Italia in her first stint with Lazio before heading to seaside club Trani. While there, she picked up another league title and when she finished her career, she had accumulated five Scudetti with four different clubs.

Clearly, she was an impressive talent-spotter too.  

Morace went on to become Italy’s greatest ever female player. The same year she crossed paths with Anne for the first time, she made her debut for the Azzurri senior team as a 14-year-old. When she finally stepped away from playing, her stats were eye-watering: 12 league titles, 2 Coppa Italia wins, 550 league goals. For her country, she racked up 153 caps, 105 goals, played in six European Championships and the very first Women’s World Cup in 1991, in which she became the first player to score a hat-trick at the tournament.

But she’s used to making history. In 1990, she scored four times at Wembley in a game against England. And, she went on the become the first woman inducted into the Italian football Hall of Fame.

After retirement, Morace went on to coach the Italian and Canadian national teams while she’s currently in charge of the AC Milan women’s side.   

And still, she remains in awe of Anne O’Brien from Inchicore. 

“She was absolutely one of the best players in the world,” she says. 

original Anne (front row, second from the right) with her Reggiana team-mates. Blonde-haired Carolina Morace is in the middle of the second row. Source: Tony O'Brien/The O'Brien family

“But, at that time, there was no TV or social media to celebrate her. There were many prejudices in Italy but Anne was so open and could talk about everything without any prejudice at all. Nothing scared her. She used to help people without any judgement whatsoever.” 

She liked being around professional footballers but she loved Rome and getting to know the city. She loved to spend time with Roman people and enjoyed the Roman lifestyle too.”

Anne always remained incredibly fond of Morace and the pair enjoyed a closeness that lasted for decades. When they were team-mates at Reggiana in 1990, they shared in a special league triumph together. When Anne had a son, Andrea, while playing for Modena, she asked Morace to be godmother. Famously, she returned to playing four weeks after giving birth and used to breastfeed in the dressing room at half-time.

“She played football because she loved football,” Morace says. 

Despite being one of the most revered players in the world and amassing an incredible haul of silverware with a litany of clubs across two countries, Anne played just four times for Ireland. It was a strange bubble: adored in Italy and France but ignored at home. Logistics and budgets ensured she was largely shunned. Some will argue it was a generational thing but Anne was a genuine icon of the women’s game and it’s jarring to think she was forever kept at a distance. When she retired from playing and began a coaching career, there was never an olive branch, an invitation to return from Italy or a wider celebration of her remarkable career.         

Though Anne rarely spoke about it, Morace feels it stayed with her. 

“She never mentioned it much but she always reminded me of how important it was to represent Italy,” she says. 

“Anne always spoke about her mother and her family back home and she was very proud of them. And I think she always dreamed of getting another call from the Irish team.”

Canada Women Coach Soccer Morace has had an incredible career as a player and a coach. Source: Neil Davidson

When Anne died in 2016, her passing was mourned intensely in her adopted home while her impact on the women’s game was fondly recalled. But Morace’s own memories of her dear friend aren’t all football-related. In fact, the sweetest and most immediate ones are about their tennis matches.       

“She taught me to play tennis and she used to laugh a lot when I threw my racket away after another defeat,” she says. 

“But there are other things that I hold onto dearly. Her class, her accent and her beautiful smile.”  

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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