A new winner of the UEFA Women’s Champions League will be crowned later today with Barcelona and Chelsea going head-to-head to win the tournament for the first time.
Barcelona have gone closest before with the Spanish side suffering a 4-1 defeat at the hands of record-breaking winners Lyon in 2019, the fourth of five consecutive triumphs for the French club.
The return of an English side to the final for the first time since Arsenal were crowned winners in 2007 - under the tournament’s former guise of the UEFA Women’s Cup - has certainly contributed to a rise in interest in the United Kingdom.
This has carried on the momentum off the back of the successful Women’s World Cup in France during 2019 and more recently a closely contested Women’s Super League title race between Chelsea and Manchester City, won by the former.
The final between England and Spain’s domestic champions has been billed as one of the most eagerly anticipated to date.
It is understandable given Barcelona’s mix of star names such as Lieke Martens combining with a crop of talent to emerge from their academy, while Chelsea manager Emma Hayes has been credited with being the driving force for their dominance of the English game.
The meeting of two dominant sides has, however, raised the nagging concern that the women’s game might be undergoing a super-charged version of the scenario seen in men’s football. Where the best talents naturally gravitate to a handful of wealthy sides and squeeze out clubs that have historically supported the women’s game.
The Women’s Champions League semi-finals featured Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain, which would not feel out of place in the men’s version.
Since acquiring a licence in 2017, Italian side Juventus have won four consecutive Serie A titles and could complete two consecutive league campaigns without defeat.
Chelsea and Manchester City lost one game each in the Women’s Super League, leaving the title decided by only two points. With the exception of Arsenal and Manchester United, there have been doubts expressed over how the gap can be closed by the rest of the league.
Similarly, Barcelona’s league title has been sealed with 26 consecutive league wins, with 128 goals scored and just five conceded to date. The feat is a remarkable one and should be lauded, yet the hope would be that it cannot be achieved again as the league becomes more professional and competitive.
Clearly these teams should be praised for the investment they have made into the women’s game and the task is for other clubs and the game's authorities to close the gap, while ensuring development remains sustainable.
It is worth noting that the likes of UEFA and the English Football Association are attempting to achieve this through their television deals announced recently.
UEFA has said 23 per cent of the €24 million (£20 million/$29 million) which will be distributed under the new deal for the revamped Women’s Champions League will be solidarity payments for domestic leagues. The €5.6 million (£4.8 million/$6.8 million) is aimed at supporting the development of the leagues.
Similarly, around £8 million ($11.2 million/€9.2 million) per season of a three-year deal stuck by the FA with the BBC and Sky Sports will go to Women’s Super League and Championship clubs, split 75 per cent to 25 per cent.
Finances understandably play an important role and the investment into the game is clearly a good thing. The hope would be the increased revenues can allow clubs to further professionalise and widen the number of teams who can compete, rather than have only a couple accumulating talent.
It is only natural that players and coaches will be drawn to the teams that offer the most professional conditions.
A FIFA report published this week titled "Increasing Global Competitiveness: An analysis of the talent development ecosystem" highlighted the importance of professionalising the women’s club game to supporting the sport’s development.
The report outlined how eight per cent of the women’s teams based in the country’s ranked in the top 20 in the world rankings are professional, with 17 per cent semi-professional and 75 per cent amateur. The number of professional clubs rises to 15 per cent in countries ranked from 21 to 50, but just two per cent are professional in nations ranked between 50 and 100.
By contrast 51 per cent of men’s teams are professional within the top 20, dropping to 43 and 26 per cent respectively in the other two categories.
The report, overseen by FIFA chief of global football development Arsène Wenger, also concluded that member associations needed to create better league structures to help support the women’s game.
The playing opportunities offered for the women’s game were, unsurprisingly, found to be vastly different to the men’s.
The report outlined concern over playing opportunities in the top women's leagues, with the most common range found to be 10 to 24 per season, compared to 30 to 34 in top-tier men’s leagues. A total of 45 top women’s leagues saw teams play between 10 to 14 games per season, with a further 21 only offering five to nine games.
The shortened seasons, which were found to be around three to four months, were viewed as limiting player development and the transition between the youth and senior games. FIFA, however, highlighted efforts made by some member associations to devise innovative formats including triple round robins and playoffs as part of efforts to grow the game.
Development and ensuring the competitiveness of the women’s game is clearly vital for the international scene, as well the at club level.
FIFA President Gianni Infantino opened the report, which examines the development of talent in both the men’s and women’s game, by stressing that the governing body wants to see the "strongest-possible competition for the crown of world champions". The declaration comes ahead of the first 48-team men’s FIFA World Cup and the first-ever 32-team FIFA Women’s World Cup.
The challenge for the organisation remains clear ahead of the expanded women’s tournament.
FIFA’s report outlined that a significant number of associations do not have an active women’s senior national team, particularly in the Asian Football Confederation, Confederation of African Football and Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football regions.
Equally it was found that in the regions identified many did not have teams at youth levels. Worldwide, only 40 per cent have an active under-16/17 or under-19/20 team, compared to 93 per cent having an under-16/17 men’s side.
A question would be whether it was wise of FIFA to expand the Women’s World Cup given those figures as the professionalisation of the game, particularly in Europe and the United States, could see increasingly strong sides facing national teams from other confederations which are either at the early part of their development or have only benefited from a handful of challenging matches.
A contrasting view would be that the increase in slots for confederations can only incentivise efforts to develop their national programmes over the coming years.
FIFA’s report has understandably urged further action in this regard, calling for confederations to consider various international competition formats that guarantee sufficient playing opportunities at senior level and work to ensure more national teams are established in their member associations.
The report has also urged associations to ensure all teams have access to facilities and infrastructure of the same standard, after finding men’s teams largely had greater access.
The lack of women's representation within the highest levels of football’s organisational structures was also outlined as a "global challenge", with an average of 28 per cent of staff in top associations women. The figure drops to 18 per cent amongst members ranked between 21 and 100 in the world.
An urgent need to increase the number of female coaches was also identified.
FIFA’s report outlined that the most ambitious associations have appointed dedicated female staff to develop the women’s game, leading to organisations being urged to recognise the value of appointing female employees for their expertise and experience, as well as encouraging retired female players to become future managers and leaders.
There is no doubt women’s football has taken enormous steps forward in recent years as today’s final will likely show, but there are unquestionably challenges ahead.
FIFA's Increasing Global Competitiveness report can be read here.