This past week, I went with 16 players from the U.S. and Canada on a trip to Italy to cap off our PUMA/Italian Football Federation (FIGC) program, Il Viaggio. For those of you not familiar with the program, Il Viaggio (Italian for “the journey”) provided male players born in 2000 and 2001 a chance to experience soccer the Italian way after being selected from three Regional Trials in Los Angeles, New York City, and Toronto and one National Trial in Orlando.
In 2015 PUMA approached our agency to help execute the FIGC program from promotion and registration to event execution domestically and internationally. Puma chose to partner with us from a desire to create a once-in-a-lifetime journey that would connect youth players and fans with an iconic brand, through an iconic team. We have been working with the great staff at PUMA and the FIGC over the past ten months to build Il Viaggio from scratch and help promote the PUMA and FIGC brands to players and fans, both Italian and non-Italian, in the U.S. and Canada. We had 800 players from 12 states, three provinces, and 99 clubs register for the program in February/March and ended with three players from California, six from New York/New Jersey, six from Toronto, and one from Ottawa.
Also joining us on the trip to Italy were In2Sports, a top Canadian soccer retailer and supporter of Il Viaggio from the onset, as well as our friends and partners at KICK, video/social content kings of the American soccer world. Both posted social content live from the trip and will be putting together video recaps in the coming days, weeks.
So, what happens when GESM, with assistance from PUMA and the FIGC, plans a killer trip for soccer players? Having planned the trip and experienced the fun, I’m happy to share the story…
With a trip and experience as cool and exciting as this, we made sure the kids were suited and booted in PUMA gear. Above is an image of everything players received prior to the trip, including training gear, casual gear, choice of evoPOWER, evoSPEED, and evoTOUCH boots, runners, classic PUMA suede casual shoes, a backpack, and game jerseys.
As you’ll see and hear in upcoming videos, our players were over-the-moon excited about receiving the gear and being able to take the gear, particularly the boots, for a spin.
After a long overnight flight, the entire group met up in Amsterdam and the trip began. After a six-hour layover in Amsterdam filled with sleeping, shopping, and storytelling, we boarded our flight for Bari, Italy.
After landing, we met up with our bus and went to the Riva del Sole hotel right along the Adriatic Sea coast. The view from the Riva del Sole’s beach was incredible and a fantastic way to start the trip. In order to maintain a professional feel throughout the trip, we all dressed in similar attire and when our players walked through the hotel the first night in FIGC training gear, families and children also at the hotel asked for pictures and autographs.
After a relaxing two hours at the hotel, we met back up with our bus and headed to Stadio San Nicola for the Italy – France international friendly. Thanks to PUMA and the FIGC, we had great seats to enjoy the atmosphere and the game and had access to the FIGC hospitality area.
Several players on the trip are of Italian descent and have Italian citizenship, so for them, being able to stand and sing the Italian anthem… in Italy… at an Italy game… was an amazing and emotional experience.
Following the game, our group was taken down to the player and media tunnel and had special access to meet and greet players before they boarded their team bus. Our players were beside themselves as Gianluigi Donnarumma, Daniele de Rossi, Alessandro Florenzi, and Graziano Pellé came over and took pictures and signed autographs. Waves from Marco Verratti, Olivier Giroud, Antoine Griezmann, and a dab from Paul Pogba sent the players to cloud nine. Truly a memorable experience. To cap off the night, the FIGC General Manager requested a photo with our players.
The next morning we drove into downtown Bari to meet up with PUMA representatives prior to an official press ceremony launching the new Italy away kit, commemorated with a 3-D art installation in the Piazza del Ferrarese.
For the next eight hours, we drove north through Italy en route to Florence. We drove towards Naples and saw Mount Vesuvius in the distance. We stopped for amazing Napolitano pizza and drove past Rome. As the sun began to set, we drove through the beautiful Tuscany region as the sun was setting before arriving in Florence at Coverciano, the FIGC headquarters and training facility where we ate, slept, trained, and played for the remainder of the trip.
Walking the halls of Coverciano you could feel the history and magic of the facility. While the first part of the trip in Bari was about having fun and watching the Senior Team play, the second half of the trip was all business.
On Saturday, September 4th, our kids finally hit the training ground and got their legs back from jet lag, bus travel, and a lot of sitting. The team had two training sessions to prepare for a match against Fiorentina on Sunday.
The picture of the Coverciano scenery does not really do the place justice. There were beautiful houses and rolling hills in every direction you looked – probably the best field backdrop I’ve ever seen in person.
With two training sessions in the books, our players got one last locker room talk with our FIGC coach, Attilio Sorbi, before the match against the Fiorentina U-15s the following day.
After training and dinner, we headed over to the Museo del Calcio on the Coverciano campus. The museum details Italian soccer and the Senior Team dating back to the 1930s and has original boots, balls, jerseys, newspaper articles, and more illustrating particular moments in time. For many of the kids, the 2006 World Cup section was a highlight and they all took pictures with their favorite jerseys and the World Cup trophy.
On Sunday, our players were locked in – game day. The match against Fiorentina was the culminating part of the program that allowed the players to prove why they were selected in April at their Regional Trial, prove why they were selected for the National Trial, and ultimately prove why they were selected for the Italy trip. The players were up for the challenge.
The Fiorentina team our Il Viaggio team played was coming off an Italian academy league title last year and the players have been playing together since they were six years old. As expected, they proved to be a challenging opponent. Heading into halftime, our team was only down 1-0 and you could argue they looked like the better team at points throughout the half. Unfortunately in the second half, fatigue and only two training sessions as a group started to show and they weren’t able to punch back. Fiorentina ended up winning by a few goals, but our group did a tremendous job promoting themselves as individual players and as a team.
You can’t win every game you’ll ever play, but hopefully our players learned a thing or two during the match and will learn and continue to improve as players.
To cap off the trip, we took the group into Florence and walked around the beautiful city. We walked past the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, Piazza del Duomo, and the Battistero di San Giovanni. We saw the Piazza della Repubblica and Ponte Vecchio. We ended our walk around Florence with a stop at the Piazzale Michelangelo with amazing views of Florence and the areas we had previously walked through.
And with that, Il Viaggio has come to an end in 2016. From the days of program registration in February, the first Regional Trial in Los Angeles in April, the National Trial in August, to our Italy trip this past weekend, we have had a blast working on this project with PUMA and the FIGC and look forward to what the future holds for the program!
For more details about our trip to Italy, stay tuned for pictures and videos from PUMA Football, KICK, and In2Sports.