The match had everything—the crunching tackles, spectacular goals, the physicality, great wing play. It had a ridiculous shot on goal from the halfway line that hit the crossbar, game management, loud, passionate fans and millions of viewers across the world. The Women’s Champions League final in Turin, Italy, on Saturday had emotions, nerves, spectacle, and, above all, football of the highest level.
The breath-taking final between Barcelona and seven-time winners Lyon was exactly what was needed to cap a significant season in the history of women’s football. Barcelona were trying to establish themselves as a superpower in Europe, while Lyon had to prove they remain the best in business, and the French side did so by winning an eighth Champions League title 3-1. The stadium was packed with fans that had made their way from both Spain and France.
Before this season, the Women’s Champions League used to start with the knockout stages, which meant that each game was a do-or-die game. With UEFA introducing the group stage format in the women’s tournament this year, the number of participating clubs and games increased. This, in turn, improved the standards, status and popularity of the women’s game. Along the way, Barcelona women played to record-breaking 91,000-plus spectators packed to the rafters at the Camp Nou against Wolfsburg (semi-final) and Real Madrid (quarter-final)—a huge moment for the women’s game. Elsewhere, in England, the women’s FA Cup finl between Manchester City and Chelsea at Wembley had another record turnout of 49,000-plus fans.
It was a significant year in Italy where the players in the women’s top tier were afforded professional status, marking a significant shift for women’s football in the country. Meanwhile, in the US, the national women’s team’s long-standing fight for equal pay finally achieved results. The men and women’s teams agreed, earlier this month, to share prize money from their respective World Cups equally.
It was also a year when the traditional big clubs’ women’s teams lifted the gloom that their men’s teams had pushed the fans into. The Manchester United Women showed grit, fight and a will to win that was lacking in the men’s team all through the season. The women’s team were in reckoning for the Champions League positions till the very last day and finished fourth; and they achieved this in just their third year since gaining promotion to the Women’s Super League. In Spain, while the Barcelona men started the season with the lacklustre performances under Ronald Koeman, it was the dominating displays of the Barca Women that gave the fans something to cheer about.
Unlike the Lionel Messi saga, the thing that stands out in the women’s game is the fact that money has not yet corrupted it. There has never been any talk of $100 million signings or $500,000 weekly wages and it is unlikely to happen anytime soon. The women’s game remains all about raw emotion and that all important urge to enjoy the game. However, this masks a very real concern that women’s association football doesn’t earn athletes anywhere near what the men do.
This progress in the women’s game would not have led to the phenomenal growth in popularity had games not been telecast to the world. The Women’s Super League games are free to watch on the FA Player while all the Women’s Champions League Games were streamed live on the DAZN channel on YouTube. The more the people watch, the more the game grows.There’s more to come with the women’s Euros this summer, where the continent’s best women’s teams will take on each other, and most likely push the game to the next level yet again.
Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and the co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.