Europe gets the women’s Champions League

IT WAS an astonishing occasion and a landmark for women’s football – 91,500 people watching the Champions League quarter-final between Barcelona and Real Madrid. This crowd owed as much to the enduring appeal of El Clásico as it did the appeal of the women’s game, but it also underlined the fact Barcelona are the best in the world right now.

When the two clubs met in the first leg, the crowd was just 3,318 at the Alfredo Di Stefano stadium. Clearly there was a lot of marketing around the second leg and despite the weather, it worked. The crowd of 91,500 even put the men’s Clásico – crowd of 86,422 – into the shade. If the rain had held off, they might have had even more people in the Camp Nou as they had sold 99,000 tickets!

Most of the Champions League quarter-finals had promising crowds. Apart from that Real-Barca first leg, the smallest attendances was the 5,018 that went to Arsenal versus Wolfsburg at the Emirates. What a pity the game, involving the only English club left in the competition, could only attract a sub-10,000 gate. By WSL standards, 5,000 was a very decent crowd, but switching to the Emirates should have attracted a much better turnout. Over the two legs, Arsenal’s answer to Wolfsburg’s high-octane approach – along with the way Chelsea were dismantled by Barca last season – reminded the WSL it still has some way to go, despite its preference for hiring big names.

Elsewhere, Paris Saint-Germain drew over 27,000 against Bayern, Juventus versus Lyon in Turin (the appointed venue for the final) was watched by 9,000-plus and Wolfsburg’s second leg win against the Gunners had a crowd of 11,000. 

Of course, the competition is the pinnacle of the club game, so it should be well supported, but it should not overlook the fact crowds are still not flocking to bread and butter league games. Barcelona Feminí usually play in front of less than 3,000 at their home games. They have won all 25 of their league fixtures, scoring an average of more than five per game and have conceded just seven goals.

The average crowd across the Women’s Super League is around 1,600 but France’s top division barely draws 1,000 per game, although Lyon have an average of 4,500. Germany is trailing at present and its average this season is 700 with Eintracht Frankfurt the best supported at 1,300. 

The WSL gets a lot of publicity, but general interest still seems lack lustre compared to the enthusiasm for the women’s national team. The Football Association’s ambition of 6,000 crowds for the WSL by 2024 looks a considerable ask at the moment and the pandemic may have put back that aspiration by a year or two. Hosting the European Championship this summer may provide a boost, but will the expected upsurge interest extend beyond internationals?

It is hard to see anyone stopping Barcelona from retaining the Champions League trophy they won so impressively last season. They have lost just one league game in three seasons and they are packed with star names, such as Alexia Putellas, the 28 year-old midfielder who fulfilled her dream as a young girl of playing for Barca. She’s also Spain’s most-capped player. Barca also have Caroline Graham Hansen (Norway), Jenni Hermoso (Spain), Irene Paredes (Spain), Lieke Martens (Netherlands), Aitana Bonmati (Spain) and Mapi León (Spain) in their squad.

Barcelona meet Wolfsburg  and Lyon and PSG provide an all-French tie in the semi-finals. These are four of the top five teams in Europe according to UEFA’s club co-efficients, so the quality couldn’t really be any higher. These should get the turnstiles clicking again.

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).