PARIS – Back in 2001-02, the semifinalists in the inaugural UEFA Women’s Cup were Frankfurt, HJK Helsinki, Toulouse and Swedish side Umea.
Fast forward 17 years to this season, and the presence of Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Chelsea and Lyon in the semifinals of the Champions League is testament to the growing influence of Europe’s biggest clubs on the women’s game.
In the early days of the last decade, Arsenal was the pioneer among the giants of the men’s game when it came to launching a successful women’s team. Arsenal was the European champion in 2007, in an ecosystem dominated by clubs dedicated entirely to women’s soccer.
However, since the competition was relaunched as the Champions League in 2009, matching the prestigious equivalent in the men’s game, all of the top English clubs got on board with the idea of having a women’s team.
Although it’s Lyon that’s now the giant of the women’s soccer scene with five Champions League crowns this decade — including the last three — and seven appearances in the final over the last nine seasons. Current Nadeshiko Japan captain Saki Kumagai has been with the club since 2013.
There has been major progress over the last 10 years, with the majority of the clubs from the so-called big five European leagues having invested in women’s soccer on a large scale.
In France, which will host this year’s Women’s World Cup in June and July, all but four of the 40 clubs in the top two divisions now also have dedicated women’s teams, with Lyon and Paris Saint-Germain the standouts.
The situation is similar in Spain, where a world record crowd for a women’s game, of 60,739, watched the recent showdown between Atletico Madrid and Barcelona on March 19. With the notable exception of Real Madrid, all the leading clubs have a women’s team.
Meanwhile, in Italy, which long lagged behind its neighbors in terms of the development of the women’s game, things have been improving since the national federation made it an obligation for professional clubs to have women’s teams, at least at youth level. Juventus, which has dominated the Italian League on the men’s side, recently retained the women’s title.
So just what is the interest for Europe’s biggest clubs in launching a women’s team?
“I know that at Lyon, the president (Jean-Michel) Aulas used it to improve the club’s image. It was important,” says Patrice Lair, the former coach of Lyon and of PSG.
Nevertheless, there are still clubs, like Real, that have resisted delving into the women’s game.
In 2016, Real president Florentino Perez told AFP that he was holding back because he wanted a team that would be a “leader” on the women’s scene.
“I think that there will be a natural evolution and that the club will certainly make a decision,” Real manager Zinedine Zidane recently said recently.
“What is for sure is that you can see how it is on the rise, and that is great for women.”
One major obstacle still holding clubs back is the lack of financial incentive, with revenue streams from television and marketing still a long, long way away from those in the men’s game.
“It takes some investment, but I think long-term it’s going to give back,” Nadia Nadim, the Danish international formerly at Manchester City and now at PSG, told AFP.
“There is a huge market, for example in Denmark more girls play football than boys, so financially I think that’s the right move to make.”
In England, sponsors have already got the message.
In March, Barclays, the bank which sponsored the men’s Premier League between 2004 and 2016, announced a deal to become the first ever title sponsor of the Women’s Super League in a three-year deal reportedly worth more than £10 million ($12.9 million) per year.