When Uefa announced that the Women’s Champions League would be reformatted to include a group stage there was widespread support. In many ways it was very overdue. Now, on the eve of the first group games, there is momentum behind the competition like never before.
Who will lift the trophy in Turin come 22 May is less clear than ever. Barcelona’s emphatic 4-0 defeat of Chelsea in last season’s final in Gothenburg ended Lyon’s five-year stranglehold on Europe’s premier prize and the door is wide open and the competition tighter.
You may ask why a group stage is viewed as the vehicle for the growth of the competition at a time when many are agitating for the removal of the group stage from the men’s competition? It is a valid question. There are huge disparities between women’s football teams in Europe and the previous knockout format did little to advance the development of the game in the weakest countries. There are gaps between the quality of teams in the men’s competition but they are not as stark.
In the women’s competition, teams from amateur clubs and leagues struggled against the professional or semi-professional clubs across two legs and their Champions League journey ended with a whimper. The optics weren’t great and they gained little from a financial or sporting point of view. The introduction of a group stage starts the process of redressing the balance.
All teams in the new group stage will earn €400,000 for playing six games. Crucially, that means even the weakest of teams taking part get vital revenue, exposure and a series of six matches of varying difficulty that they can use to test their players. In addition, each team represented earns a slice of a new solidarity payment pot which goes to other clubs in their domestic league to raise the level back home.
The opening round of fixtures will see Hoffenheim play Danish side HB Køge and seven-time champions Lyon begin their bid to reclaim their crown against Sweden’s BK Häcken. But it is one of the two games being played just over two hours later that will set the tone for the tournament on Tuesday night.
Barcelona welcome 2007 winners Arsenal to the Johan Cruyff Stadium having scored 35 goals and conceded only once in their first five Superliga games. Arsenal, meanwhile, have scored 16 and conceded twice in four wins that have included victories overs Women’s Super League title rivals Manchester City and Chelsea. Both are in scintillating form, although Barcelona are further into their current team cycle than Arsenal and are playing with a fluidity that speaks to an understanding between many of the players that has been developed over a number of years.
In Alexia Putellas they have perhaps the only player in the world that could justifiably beat the Arsenal forward Vivianne Miedema to every individual prize available this year. A four-minute hat-trick in Barcelona’s 8-0 defeat of Valencia went viral to lift Putellas’ name into broader circles and stopping the marauding Barça attack with Putellas at the heart will be extremely tough for Arsenal. If the Gunners triumph in Catalonia it will send shockwaves through a competition that would then realistically be anyone’s to win.
The other standout tie of the round sees another English team in action with Chelsea playing old foes Wolfsburg at Kingsmeadow on Wednesday night. Last season Emma Hayes’s team exorcised the ghost of having not beaten the German side in six attempts, doing the double over them in the quarter-finals before losing in the final. Wolfsburg have slipped off their perch, having been pipped to the Bundesliga title by Bayern Munich last season and they currently sit second, two points behind the champions, but the two-time Champions League winners understand what it takes to go far in Europe. Chelsea have stuttered domestically as well with an opening day 3-2 defeat to Arsenal tarnishing an otherwise unblemished start to the season.
These marquee fixtures will attract a huge audience to the competition thanks to the new group stage format and to a new broadcast rights deal that will see all 61 fixtures from the group stage onwards broadcast for free for two years by the streaming service Dazn via YouTube.
It is hard to overstate the significance of the deal reached between Dazn, YouTube and Uefa that commits to showcasing all of the games to as big an audience as possible. A report by Dazn and the Female Quotient titled “The coverage gap” showed the potential impact that opening the game up like this could have with “minimal promotion for events, broadcast disparities, and lack of steady media and social coverage and storytelling” highlighted as creating “a significant barrier to viewership”, and 64% of those surveyed saying they didn’t watch women’s sport because they didn’t know enough about the athletes and weren’t aware of where they could watch games.
In recent years Uefa has split the women’s Champions League final away from the city where the men’s is hosted, with this year’s match to take place at Allianz Stadium – the home of Juventus. It has also centralised broadcast rights and sold them separately and has split sponsorship away from the men’s deals.
Now the format has changed to maximise the impact of the tournament on women’s football in Europe at the bottom as much as the top. Everything is aligning. Let’s hope the football thrives in the environment that is being built for it.