Mirror image – UWCL includes familiar names

THE UEFA Women’s Champions League has reached the quarter-final stage and the eight teams involved are: Arsenal, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Juventus, Lyon, Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid and Wolfsburg. It could almost read like the A to Z of men’s football in Europe, with the exception of Lyon and Wolfsburg. Five of the eight have appeared in at least seven quarter-finals in the past decade and in the past five years, six have taken part in at least four. The men’s game has actually been less polarised since 2017-18.

Clearly, money talks in the women’s game almost as much as it does with men. The leading clubs are almost all affiliated to elite European clubs and unsurprisingly, those teams are dominant in their domestic leagues. Of the last eight of the Champions League, the leaders in Spain (Barcelona), France (Lyon), Germany (Wolfsburg), Italy (Juventus) and England (Arsenal) are all in the mix. While men’s football took decades to create huge imbalances, women’s football seems to have reached that stage at a rather extraordinary speed.

Barcelona, the holders, demonstrated how superb their team was when they swept Chelsea’s women aside in 2020-21 in the Champions League final. In the league this season, Barca have won all 24 of their games, scoring an astonishing 136 goals and conceding just six. They have already been crowned champions. Likewise, Lyon are unbeaten in France, winning 16 of their 17 games and PSG, Arsenal, Juventus and Arsenal have all lost just one game each. 

The elite in women’s football have financial strength and this enables them to lure the top players to their clubs. For example, the Guardian’s top 100 women footballers, published at the end of 2021, included 13 from Barcelona, 10 each from Lyon and PSG, nine from both Arsenal and Chelsea and eight from Bayern Munich. In total, the current last eight of the Champions League accounted for 58% of the top 100.

The Women’s Super League in England is dominated by three clubs: Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal. Chelsea have won five titles since 2015 while Manchester City have been runners-up six times in that same period. Arsenal’s most recent championship win was in 2019, although they lead the table in 2021-22.

Interest is growing in the women’s game in England and the average WSL crowd is now around 1,600 with Arsenal the biggest draw with gates of just under 2,600. Chelsea average 2,500 and Manchester City 2,200 and another half dozen generate more than 1,000 with Manchester United just under 2,000. There’s no shortage of media coverage these days and the profile of women’s football is growing all the time. Currently, there is considerable momentum behind the levelling up of wages, notably in the FA Cup, but while the highest level of women’s football has attendances comparable to step two or three non-league, advocates will have to be prepared for a long game.

Only one WSL team has won the Champions League or its equivalent, Arsenal in 2007, who beat Swedish side Umeå 1-0 on aggregate. The winning goal was scored by none other than BBC pundit Alex Scott and the combined crowd from the two games struggled to get to 10,000. The last Champions League final with a crowd drew almost 20,000. This year’s final will be played in Turin.

The names might be familiar, but the Champions League should make for compelling viewing over the coming weeks. Can anyone really stop the Barcelona machine?

Quarter-final draw: Bayern Munich v PSG (22 March, 30 March); Juventus v Lyon (23 March, 31 March); Arsenal v Wolfsburg (23 March, 31 March); Real v Barcelona (22 March, 30 March).

UEFA Europa League: Barcelona hit form at the wrong time for West Ham

WEST HAM United’s 2-0 victory over Sevilla was an old fashioned European night, the kind the Boleyn Ground used to host so well on the rare occasions the Hammers qualified for the long departed Cup-Winners’ Cup. In 1975-76, clashes with the likes of Den Haag and Eintracht Frankfurt produced a marvellous, memorable atmosphere and the sound of “bubbles” rang out in the cold East London air. In some ways, the London Stadium, which has been criticised for having a somewhat empty feeling, announced its arrival against Sevilla.

West Ham have enjoyed their European run this season and they now figure among the favourites to lift the Europa League trophy. They have been drawn against Lyon, an underperforming side who have also saved some of their best moments for the competition. Their two-legged win against Porto was an achievement and they actually won five of their six group games. 

West Ham have, if anything, punched above their weight this season, but following on from 2020-21, when they finished in sixth position, their performance suggests they have moved up a step in the hierarchy. They should have enough to get past Lyon, but they could then come up against Barcelona, who were sent into Europa exile after failing in the Champions League. 

A few months ago, Barcelona would not have kept West Ham boss David Moyes awake at night, but in recent weeks, the club seems to have regained its confidence and found some form. Their 4-0 victory at Real Madrid was a stunning result and demonstrated they are on their way back after a miserable end to 2021. New signings Ferran Torres (Manchester City) and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Arsenal) have settled in well and have scored 15 goals between them.

Barcelona face Eintracht Frankfurt in the quarter-finals, no easy draw, but the Blaugrana have not been beaten in the league since early December. Frankfurt are in eighth place in the Bundesliga and have beaten Bayern in Munich, so they will be a tough opponent for Xavi’s team. Curiously, West Ham fans were set upon by their Frankfurt counterparts in Seville, when the Hammers were in town to face Sevilla and the German side playing at Real Betis. It’s not hard to imagine what could happen if West Ham have to travel to the Deutsche Bank Park stadium for a semi-final game.

Barcelona, however, will be determined to win the Europa League to ensure a path back to the Champions League. This is important not only for the financial benefits of being involved in the premier competition, but also to erase the humiliation of their early elimination from the Champions League. As for West Ham, they will be desperate to win something for the first time in 41 years and also rubber-stamp their elevation to European club status.

But there are other contenders and Lyon are also among the clubs that could win the competition this season. RB Leipzig, for all their spectacular progress, have never won a trophy, so you could argue they are due some material success. Similarly, Atalanta, who have joined the Serie A upper bracket in the past couple of years, could also do with some silverware to provide affirmation of their rise. Braga and Rangers are two of the more unfancied sides in the draw, but in this half of the quarter-final draw, any team could go all the way to the final. Rangers have had some good nights in the Europa this season, beating Borussia Dortmund and Red Star Belgrade in the knockout phase. Braga, who beat Monaco in the round of 16, finished second to Red Star in their group. They are currently fourth in the Portuguese Primeira Liga, while Rangers are in a battle to regain the Scottish Premiership title they won in 2021.

The field is wide open, but GOTP’s prediction is a last four of West Ham v Barcelona and Leipzig v Rangers, with the final on May 18 in Sevilla being contested by Barcelona and Leipzig. On the other hand… 

Barcelona go for renaming the Camp Nou

SPOTIFY are in the process of agreeing a € 280 million deal with Barcelona that will include shirt sponsorship and the renaming of the iconic Camp Nou. The transaction, undoubtedly just what Barca need in their current situation, may not prove to be a popular one with the fans, at least not in the short term. If there is a stadium indelibly linked to a club, it is surely the Camp Nou.

Spotify, who recently announced they generated € 9.7 billion of revenues in 2021, have over 400 million users worldwide. They have a strong profile that is instantly recognisable and after some bad publicity, they arguably needed some good news. The marriage of Spotify and Barcelona may be a compelling mix for the modern age, but will Spotify’s deal prove beneficial for the company? Is it realistic to expect people to start calling the vast bowl the Camp Nou Spotify?

This is a case of caveat emptor because there are four main cultural pillars in the football club story: the name; the logo/badge; the stadium; and the colours. Tamper with these elements and you risk alienating your audience. However, there are rich pickings to be had in naming rights and not many clubs outside of Germany have really exploited their potential.

With so many clubs suffering from the pandemic in terms of reduced revenues and rising debts, there may be a more flexible sentiment around selling naming rights. It is certainly easier when a club builds a new stadium as the legacy has already been disrupted, hence when Arsenal moved into a new arena, adding the name Emirates wasn’t seen as a heinous crime. It would have been a different tale if their former ground, the much-loved Highbury, had been renamed.

Similarly, Manchester City’s adoption of Etihad was seen as part of their takeover by Abu Dhabi. It would seem unlikely that Liverpool and Manchester United would ever rename Anfield and Old Trafford respectively. United’s board has said in the past that it would not sell its name, but cynics might argue that if a deal came along, everything has its price in football.

Everton, when they move to their new dockside venue, will have an opportunity that would have been difficult to even suggest at Goodison Park. Tottenham have yet to sell rights for their new ground, but having incurred big losses, the moment cannot be too far away.

Barcelona’s proposed deal will yield € 93 million annually for three years and is aimed at replacing Rakuten as the main sponsor, whose agreement expires at the end of this season. Rakuten will depart after paying the club € 55 million per year for the past five years, but they were reported to be less than satisfied with the sponsorship deal, claiming their objectives were not fulfilled.

Since Barca have been embroiled in talks with Spotify, the club’s CEO, Ferran Reverter, has resigned, “for personal and family reasons”. Reverter had been with the club less than a year and was a pivotal figure in the financial recalibration of Barcelona. Doubtless, some will link the Spotify talks with his departure.

Another major club, Argentina’s River Plate, have also announced plans to sell naming rights to their El Monumental ground, the venue of the 1978 World Cup final. They are also expanding the capacity to 81,000. As the club doesn’t currently have the financial resources, the rights, which should generate around US$ 20 million, will fund the project. Favourites to agree a deal are the supermarket chain Chango Más.

Of the top 30 clubs in Europe (source: Deloitte), 11 have sponsors as part of their stadium name, including Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Juventus, Borussia Dortmund and Atlético Madrid. 

Some companies have developed a taste for buying-up rights, such as German insurers Allianz. The Munich-based company has what it calls a “family of stadiums” and has its name on football arenas in Munich (Bayern), Turin (Juventus), Sydney, Minnesota, Nice, São Paulo (Palmeiras) and Vienna (SK Rapid Wien). The Allianz in Munich is one of the great football sites in the world and is the most visited tourist destination in Bavaria as well as Bayern Munich’s home. The Aliianz family seems to have one thing in common, they all seem to be state-of-the-art constructions. They also have an impressive appearance.

Germany has embraced the concept of stadium sponsorship more than almost any other country – only a handful of current Bundesliga clubs do not have deals in place. And in typical German corporate fashion, backing comes from some of Deutschland AG’s big names, such as Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz, Deutsche Bank and Bayer.

Some sponsorships do work very well, the Allianz Arena, for example, rolls of the tongue and nobody blinks an eyelid when you mention Emirates and Arsenal. This is the challenge for Tottenham, and indeed for Barcelona, to secure a sponsor that becomes seamlessly linked to the brand of the football club. In Barca’s case, the Camp Nou is such a significant brand of its own that grafting any other name to it will be hard work. There should be no shortage of takers for big club rights, for the mass appeal and media coverage of the game should benefit modern, multi-faceted companies. 

The biggest corporate brands in the world are predominantly tech-orientated, such as Apple, Amazon, Google and Microsoft. We’ve yet to see much activity around football club sponsorship, although partnerships have been established, such as Apple and Bayern Munich and Microsoft and the England team. 

The key to any deal, or indeed anything that threatens the integrity of a club’s brand, is sensitivity and recognition of the cultural aspects of the game. Clubs like Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United and Liverpool will be only too aware of the problems that can emerge from a badly-handled deal that devalues the brand in any way. Right now, with clubs feeling the impact of the pandemic, the need to come up with elegant solutions is arguably more important than ever before, so we can probably expect more to leverage the power of their historic and modern football landmarks.