On the eve of a special UEFA Women’s Champions League final, coaches and key players from Lyon and Wolfsburg explain why it means so much to be competing for top prizes again following a long period of inaction due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
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When the final whistle blows at Sebastián’s Anoeta Stadium on Sunday night, only one team’s name will be inscribed on the UEFA Women’s Champions League trophy: reigning champions Lyon or Wolfsburg, the two pre-eminent forces of European women’s football in recent seasons.
Yet, for the wider women’s game, the successful conclusion to the 2019/20 women’s European season will represent a victory for everyone: UEFA, national associations, domestic leagues and, above all, coaches and players.
Women’s football in Europe had come to something of a standstill over the past six months – only Germany’s Frauen-Bundesliga was able to complete its scheduled domestic league fixtures due to the pandemic. For most of the teams contesting the unique mini-tournament format, the past 10 days have represented their first chance to play competitive elite-level football in months.
Speaking ahead of this weekend’s final, Lyon coach Jean-Luc Vasseur spoke of his gratitude to UEFA and its partners for the opportunity to return to action.
Jean-Luc Vasseur: “It was extremely important for football to get going again”
“I’d like to thank the authorities from UEFA for all their work, even if we have had to wait a long time. They managed it. We were delighted, we’re happy,” said the Lyon coach.
“It was extremely important for football to get going again because it was important for normal life to get going as well, even despite there being the coronavirus. To have kept these organisations and competitions going, I think it’s great.”
Sarah Bouhaddi: “We are really happy to be able to finish this Champions League”
For Lyon goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi, a winner of six Women’s Champions League titles, there is the belief that sport stands for something bigger to society.
“Sport has allowed people to focus on something else, and it also allowed us to focus on something else, and it was important to get back to being active again,” said the 33-year-old.
“Today, in the Champions League, we found the formula to allow us to continue the competition and finish it.
“The circumstances are different, but we are really happy to be here today and to be able to finish this Champions League, because that was the main goal at the start of the season, and we worked during the lockdown for this Champions League, and now we’re here we’re super happy.
Stephan Lerch: “It was a completely new situation for me as a coach”
The recent period has brought new challenges for everybody in football, with no prior experience to draw on and uncertainty as to whether, and when, competition could resume.
“It was a completely new situation for me as a coach, as it was for many,” Wolfsburg’s coach Stephan Lerch explains. “The coronavirus pandemic swept over us like a volcano. We had to be very flexible, we didn’t have any experience to call upon. That was the exciting situation, we had to constantly follow the developments.
“We had to see what was possible in such a situation and what we can learn for the future. It showed us a few things which we will come back to in the next few months. But the big thing was the uncertainty about how things would proceed and how to prepare - that was certainly a big challenge.”
Alex Popp: ”You have to give everything”
Participants in the final eight have faced a new challenge on the field too - playing a series of one-off knockout ties where one mistake could mean elimination. The format has certainly captured the imagination of fans and players alike.
For Wolfsburg forward Alex Popp, it has added an extra layer of excitement to proceedings.
“It makes it all very interesting, because either team can get a lucky break at any point,” she says. “And I think you could see during the men’s games, but also in our games already, that the games have been very intense and played at a fast pace because the teams know that this one game is decisive. And therefore, you have to give everything, which makes the whole thing very interesting and luckily, we were able to win both of our games so far.”
Lerch: “In this tournament, you have to go to your limits”
By Wolfsburg’s own admission, they may have a slight advantage having been able to complete their domestic season – in the process securing a fourth straight Frauen-Bundesliga title in Germany.
“Maybe we should talk about this again on Monday when we know the result of the final, but I certainly know that this could be an advantage that we were in this rhythm,” acknowledges Wolfsburg coach Stephan Lerch. “We were playing competitively until 4 July and many other teams didn’t have that.
“On the other hand, as a result we had a shorter break and other teams had more time to prepare. We now had three-and-a-half weeks to prepare, where we had to introduce new players and had to reach a level where we could perform at our best, because at this level, or in this tournament, you have to go to your limits or even exceed them. That was a big challenge for us too. Because of that, the teams started with different conditions.”