Hosting the women’s final in a separate venue from the men’s from now on is recognition of the giant strides the competition has made in the past decade. Paul Saffer reports
TEN YEARS ON
A NEW ERA
When the final whistle brought last season’s UEFA Women’s Champions League final to a close, the packed crowd at the Valeriy Lobanovskyi Stadium in Kyiv had witnessed history. Not just a thrilling contest. Nor even simply a record fifth title for Lyon. The French club’s extra-time comeback against Wolfsburg was a riveting affair, but it will perhaps be remembered as the perfect ending to a chapter in the women’s game.
This year’s final in Budapest will be the tenth under the UEFA Women’s Champions League banner. It will also be very different. The competition’s first major evolution came when the UEFA Women’s Cup took on new branding and single-match finals in 2009/10, but every showpiece since then has unfolded in the shadow of the men’s UEFA Champions League decider, taking place on a Thursday in a smaller stadium in the same or a nearby city. Starting in Budapest, the UEFA Women’s Champions League final will truly come into its own.
Faye White was in the Arsenal side that won the UEFA Women’s Cup in 2007
“The potential for women’s football is limitless and it was with this in mind that we decided to separate the two UEFA Champions League events,” explained UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin ahead of the last joint finals in Kyiv. “That will give the women’s game a platform of its own, to continue to grow and to become an unmissable event and television spectacle in its own right.”
Camille Abily could not be more delighted. The Lyon legend now works for the club’s academy and chairs its charitable foundation after she retired with her fifth European title last year – closing a chapter of her own. “The good thing is that we don’t ‘need’ the men’s Champions League in order to exist, and that’s something very interesting,” she explains. “In addition, it also allows us to take women’s football to countries where it may not be as developed, as is the case this year with Hungary.”
Faye White, part of the Arsenal side that won the old UEFA Women’s Cup and a player in the competition from the very first season in
2001/02, agrees. “It’s just showing that the game has grown and that the demand is there,” says the former England captain. “I think now that it stands out on its own without being under the shadow of the men’s final a couple of days later. That helps it to be given the stage that it deserves even more.”
The competition has certainly come a long way from its fairly humble beginnings less than 20 years ago, when only 33 associations entered clubs; the number is now closing on 50. The inaugural season also yielded only 13 four-figure crowds, compared to more than 40 this term. But what it did do in its early days was give players a glimpse of a potential full-time future, at a time when few of even the biggest European leagues offered that opportunity.
“It was exciting,” recalls White of the away trips. “A bit of an eye-opener as well, but also just an exciting experience to have that feeling of being professional.” The advent of the UEFA Women’s Champions League era in 2009/10 helped to move that process along, putting the competition in the same bracket as the men’s top club tournament. “Renaming it the ‘Champions League’ showed that the competition was gaining importance,” adds Abily. “That allowed it to make an even bigger name for itself and made things easier for sponsors and partners in terms of exposure.”
The former France midfielder has watched the growth first hand, having got her first taste of the tournament with Montpellier in 2004. “For the qualifying rounds in countries like Portugal, there were maybe 100 spectators overall,” she remembers. “Then, one of my greatest Champions League memories goes back to 2012, when we played in front of 50,000 fans at Munich’s Olympiastadion. We could see how much it had developed, whether it was in terms of game quality and intensity, or in terms of exposure and attendance.”
Although that attendance record from the 2012 final endures, crowd numbers have kept rising overall. So too has the competition’s profile, and that showpiece game from seven years ago was a telling moment. Abily’s Lyon clinched a 2-0 victory against Frankfurt – the dominant side from the opening decade – confirming the potential of women’s teams backed by major clubs in the men’s game. Lyon were pioneers in that regard, and independent sides such as Frankfurt and Sweden’s Umeå, who had led the way towards professionalisation, have struggled to match their resources.
"We could see how much it had developed – in quality and in intensity and in exposure and attendance"
Arsenal were the first women’s section of a men’s club to win the title, though their final victory against Umeå in 2007 was something of a surprise. The Gunners’ financial commitment in those days is also dwarfed by the funds now available to Lyon and others, but White is full of respect for the holders’ trailblazing role. “They’ve got the support and the finances there, and the passion that they’re going to treat the women’s team as equal,” explains the retired defender, who now works in Arsenal’s back office. “They were before their time in being able to do that.”
Lyon are far from alone. They were joined by Chelsea, Bayern München and Barcelona in this season’s semi-finals, with Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester City and Atlético de Madrid having also started the campaign with a realistic chance of a men’s and women’s UEFA Champions League double. Indeed, a match between Atlético and Barcelona attracted 60,739 spectators in March, a record for a women’s league game in Europe. New highs have also been set elsewhere, with 39,027 recently watching Juventus play Fiorentina and 22,911 attending Lyon’s semi-final home leg against Chelsea – a UEFA Women’s Champions League record for a match other than the final. The investment by top clubs has fuelled UEFA’s decision not just to separate the two finals but also to seek separate sponsors for the women’s competition.
“This is a long-term project, but it’s heartening to see the game become more professional across Europe,” says Nadine Kessler, a winner as a player with Turbine Potsdam and Wolfsburg, and now UEFA’s head of women’s football. “With that comes increased opportunity, exposure and affinity.”
Kessler’s old playing rival Abily concurs: “Exposure is becoming increasingly important. It leads sponsors and partners to think, ‘If we sponsor these teams, people will talk about us internationally and even worldwide.’ It’s become something very interesting for them.”
That has looked increasingly clear in recent months. On the day that Nike announced they were following Visa as UEFA’s second women’s football sponsor, the company held a major media launch for the 14 female-specific kits they are producing for teams at the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup. This summer’s tournament in France is set to be another big hit, meanwhile, following on from the records set at UEFA Women’s EURO 2017 in the Netherlands – where attendances approached 250,000, television audiences increased by 50 million on 2013, and online figures more than doubled.
With the likes of Manchester United and both Milan clubs also entering the women’s realm, this has allowed more and more players to go full time – well over 1,000 by 2018 and increasing fast, with the English Women’s Super League, for one, now strictly professional.
Of course, there is still huge potential for growth, and the UEFA Women’s Champions League is no exception. For White, this means that rounds earlier than the final could also become marquee occasions. “It might be that these big games, certainly in the quarter-finals and semi-finals, are hosted in bigger grounds in order to attract bigger groups of fans. And that it’s not just the finals that are hosted there.”
“It’s now become more attractive and more of a spectacle,” says Abily, for whom the start of a new chapter in the UEFA Women's Champions League is a moment to savour – to say nothing of the tournament due for kick-off in her homeland. “We really are on the right track, and with France hosting the World Cup this summer, there will be a springboard to go even further.”
Five landmark finals
2018: LYON HAT-TRICK
Lyon solidified their place in history by becoming the first team to win three consecutive titles and the first to clinch five overall – though they had to come from behind against Wolfsburg to do it. Pernille Harder’s deflected shot put the German side in front in the third minute of extra time, before Amandine Henry, Eugénie Le Sommer, Ada Hegerberg and Camille Abily swept away the two-time winners, who had lost Alexandra Popp to a red card.
2012: RECORD CROWD
A competition record crowd of 50,212 was on hand at Munich’s Olympiastadion in 2012 for the third consecutive Franco-German final – and, like the year before, Lyon came out on top, 2-0 against Frankfurt this time. The first team to successfully defend their crown since Umeå in 2004, OL retained the title by scoring 39 goals along the way and conceding just once all season. Le Sommer’s penalty and a lobbed effort from Abily made the difference in the decider.
2015: ISLACKER CRACKER
There was high drama in Berlin as Frankfurt beat Paris 2-1 to claim their fourth European crown with an added-time strike, Colin Bell’s team having earlier taken the lead through Célia Šašić shortly after the half-hour. Marie-Laure Delie headed in an equaliser before the break, but Paris suffered the first of their two final defeats when substitute Mandy Islacker found the net with a neat left-footed finish after 92 minutes.
2010: POTSDAM SPOT ON
The first single-legged final in 2010 heralded a new era for the competition – in more ways than one. This was also Lyon’s maiden final appearance, and it ended in heartbreak as Potsdam secured their second title 7-6 on penalties after a goalless draw. OL goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi made a pair of saves in the shoot-out, but so too did Anna Felicitas Sarholz, before Élodie Thomis fired against the crossbar with the 18th spot kick.
2014: MÜLLER MAGIC
The action was breathtaking and unrelenting as Wolfsburg and Tyresö offered up the seven-goal highest-scoring single-match final. Holders Wolfsburg were in deep trouble when Marta and Verónica Boquete put Swedish side Tyresö 2-0 up inside 30 minutes, but Alexandra Popp and Martina Müller had them level again shortly after the restart. And although Marta swiftly doubled her tally, substitute Verena Faisst made it 3-3, setting the stage for Müller’s late winner.