We look at how the premier club competition in women's football has experienced a positive return to play in Spain.
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It has long been a dream that big UEFA Women’s Champions League games would play out at magnificent stadiums like Real Sociedad’s Anoeta and Athletic Club’s San Mamés; so it has come to pass with this season’s unique mini-tournament.
On the same day that the men’s club competitions were scheduled for Lisbon and Germany respectively, so the women’s showpiece event was confirmed to take place in Bilbao and San Sebastián. It was all the more welcome as, for most of the players, the UWCL offers their first real chance to return to play since football’s shutdown; of the eight contenders, only German duo Wolfsburg and Bayern had been able to complete their scheduled domestic season.
As UEFA president Aleksander Čeferin said, “The UEFA Women's Champions League will bring a message of hope.”
Finding a Spanish solution
The journey from postponement to rescheduling was not an easy process. Fortunately, UEFA was able to work closely with the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) – no stranger to big events – to identify two stadiums in close proximity with the facilities to stage matches in these unique circumstances. While this is no normal tournament, UEFA is hardly short of experience in hosting all manner of competitions. That meant it was able to accelerate the usual time frame involved in moving from site selection to planning to implementation.
At the centre of the arrangements, of course, were the clubs themselves. UEFA’s close work with each team, plus the European Clubs Association (ECA), ensured that the tournament would work for the finalists. That included making it logistically possible for them to prepare and attend in their ‘bubbles’, as well as dealing with a season ending in August when key players’ contracts were expiring in June and transfers had already been agreed. Cooperation was the watchword to make sure that the flagship women’s club competition was able to go ahead.
Atlético de Madrid player Amanda Sampedro welcomed the news when the venues were announced. “I’ve always said that in the north of Spain, football is lived and breathed in a wonderful way,” she said. “I think they’re both perfect stadiums and they’re two perfect cities to host the Champions League – and to help women’s football to keep growing and progressing in Spain.”
The media spotlight
Other than the clubs, match organisers and stadium staff, journalists have been among the few people lucky enough to be in the ground for each match. It has been an undeniably unusual experience, though the lack of the usual cacophonous atmosphere makes the process of covering a game a more cerebral pursuit. With players’ and coaches’ shouts audible, and perhaps aided by the panoramic view from the Anoeta’s toptier media position, it is easier to remove yourself from the cut-and-thrust of the game to really get a sense of how the match is evolving tactically and strategically.
Of course, the players need to keep their distance from the media, but there are still questions to be asked and opinions to be sought.
As such, microphones on long poles have become a lot more of a regular sight during the post-match ‘flash’ interviews that are conducted for television.
Handily, interviewing someone from a couple of metres away through a mask is made a lot easier with a backdrop of relative silence.
The drama of the one-off tie
Another key difference at this mini-tournament is the one-off knockout nature of the ties. Instead of 13 games that take two months across five match days played all over Europe, everything is happening in the space of ten nights in one region. With dramatic shocks and twists, it has made for high-stakes drama.
Wolfsburg head coach Stephan Lerch concurred before his team’s game against Glasgow City: “It makes it very exciting, this format. You have to be ready from the first minute, you don’t have a second chance. Maybe for the underdogs it’s a chance – if there are any at this stage – with the help of some luck, to land a surprise. We are aware of that and want to avoid that. It’s a new experience for us.”
Lerch’s side ended up with safe passage to the semi-finals following an impressive 9-1 win. Elsewhere in the quarter-finals, Barcelona overcame Atlético Madrid 1-0 and Lyon beat Bayern München 2-1.
That meant the first semi-final saw Wolfsburg taking on Barcelona, with the former winning 1-0 thanks to a goal from Swedish forward Fridolina Rolfö. In the other semi, Lyon beat Paris by the same scoreline to make it the eighth time that a French team will be taking on a German side in the final.
In truth, whoever ends up being crowned champion, the players have just been relieved to get the chance to finish the competition having worked so hard to get to the last eight. “We are really happy we could play the games,” said PSG's Signe Bruun after the quarter-finals; on a personal note, her comeback following a long injury absence ended up being perfectly timed. “It’s a really good solution like this. There are no people watching; there’s no sound, it’s all quiet. So it’s different, but it’s a really good solution to finish the tournament like this.”
You can read the preview for Sunday's UEFA Women's Champions League final here.