FRANCESCA PICCININI has been the golden girl of Italian volleyball for the past three decades or so. This year the 40-year-old has further enhanced her legacy after winning a record seventh Champions League title for her club Novara. Piccinini spoke with Valhmor Camilleri about her achievements...

Francesca Piccinini is the perfect example of longevity in sport.

At 40 years of age, the towering wing spiker continued to defy her sceptics last May when she led her club AGIL Volley Novara to European glory when they beat Italian rivals Imoco Volley 3-1 in the final to collect her seventh CEV Champions League title in her career.

Winning the continental title with Novara was another highlight of what is an extraordinary career for Piccinini.

In fact, apart from her seven Champions League titles at club level, Piccinini has helped Italy to the World Championship title in 2002, the European crown in 2009 and the World Cup in 2007.

Last month, Piccinini had the opportunity to share some of her knowledge and experiences during the Malta Volley Summer Camp, which was organised by MaltaforEnglish. The camp attracted young volleyball players from the age of 13 to 18 at the De La Salle College for a number of training sessions that were led by Italian coach Stefano Saja.

“It was round December or January that I was approached by the organisers to take part in this youth camp here in Malta and I sincerely I couldn’t wait to come and give my contribution,” Piccinini told the Sunday Times of Malta.

“I have already been in Malta on holiday on a few occasions but this time it’s different as being on the playing court with so many youngsters and trying to pass on to them my passion for the game is something I am really proud of.

“I feel blessed to have had such a long career full of successes and sacrifices. My message to these youngsters is very simple, you have to believe in your dreams. There will be difficult times ahead but if you set up targets, with hard work and commitment you can fulfil these objectives.”

Piccinini says the sport of volleyball has given her a lot, not only in terms of sporting success but also in her development as a person.

“Playing volleyball has helped me a lot to become a better person,” Piccinini said.

“The game enables you to interact with a group of people, working together for one sole aim. Maybe you don’t go along with all the members of the team but once you are on the court you fight for your team-mates and try to help them in every situation and they will do the same to you.

“When the team fulfils its objective you feel a great sense of satisfaction as the team chemistry that you built with your team-mates has helped you achieve a positive result.

“And those characteristics, one can apply them to his daily life as it helps you to communicate better with other people and pushes you forward to always improve in everything you do in your life.”

Piccinini’s eye inevitably lit up when I mentioned that famous night in Berlin last May when Novara beat Imoco Volley to secure the CEV Champions League title and the former Italy international admits that it’s hard to describe the emotions she felt when lifting the trophy.

“It was a beautiful emotion,” Piccinini said.

“I may have won seven Champions League titles, but each time it feels like being the first. This success came after months of hard work and sacrifices.

“When I joined Novara three years ago, the first goal was to win the Italian title, which we succeeded and then tried to raise the bar higher by targeting the European crown and to do it against our biggest rivals, Conegliano (Imoco Volley) it was unbelievable.”

Asked whether she feels that this year’s title was the most special given the circumstances, Piccinini said: “Each and everyone of the seven titles is special. This year’s success takes more significance for me as I won it at 40 years of age and being a key player for the team.

“The previous one I won three years ago at Casalmaggiore, was equally special as I achieved it in a city of just over 15,000 people, with a club that had just developed itself into a European powerhouse after beating a very strong Turkish side, VakifBank, and was also named the best player of the tournament. So , each Champions League victory is special in its own way.”

But what is the secret behind’s Piccinini’s longevity in the sport?

“Certainly I enjoy myself playing the game,” she said.

“For me, volleyball is the biggest love of my life and throughout the years I have gained a lot of experience. I am enjoying myself more than I used to do before. I am a very competitive person and I hate to lose so that will to succeed has certainly driven me forward in my career.”

At Novara, Piccinini has reunited with coach Massimo Barbolini with whom she enjoys a special relationship, having worked with him as well with the Italian national team and at Casalmaggiore.

“Mr Barbolini is a coach that I admire a lot,” she said.

“I worked for many years with him in the national team and Casalmaggiore and now at Novara. He works really hard and his biggest attribute is that he communicates a lot with his players and that is very important in building a relationship with his players.

“We speak a lot and he helps me to improve many things in my game and certainly he played a key role in having such a successful career.”

This year, it was a very positive year for Italian volleyball as apart from having two teams reaching the Champions League final, the women’s national team won a silver medal at the World Championships in Japan.

Youth investment

Piccinini said that the federation’s drive to inject young talent in the Italian game has played a key role behind such success.

“The silver medal won by the girls of the national team was a huge boost for our movement,” Piccinini said.

“The federation’s investment in nurturing young talent is starting to reap its dividends. In the last few years many young players have been promoted to the national team set up and the result achieved at the world championships, although surprising for many, was not totally unexpected.

“Credit must also go to national coach Davide Mazzannti who despite being very young, has introduced a new style of play that has transformed the national team and surely they will hope to maintain this success at next year’s Olympics in Tokyo.”

Will Francesca Piccinini be again on court next season? “I sincerely don’t know. I’m still evaluating things. For the past ten years I have been saying that it’s time to retire but I always ended up playing and winning. But I have not made a decision yet.

“But should I retire from the game I will still be part of the sport, not as a coach as I don’t think I’m good at that, but in some other role for sure as volleyball is everything for me.”