It is 20 years since Steffi Jones netted the first goal of the inaugural UEFA Women's Cup final. She is delighted at how far the game has come since…
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The Frankfurt defender's 68th-minute strike put her side in command against Swedish side Umeå, writing the first chapter of an ever-developing legend and guaranteeing herself a place in the history books.
The story of what happened next on the evening of 23 may 2002 begins with Birgit Prinz pouncing in the final minute to seal the German side's triumph and secure their place as women’s club football pioneers. But it spools out from there over 20 years of consistent growth and evolution for the competition, which became the Women’s Champions League in 2009/10 and this season introduced its very first group stage.
Before that 2002 final, Jones had already won a pair of UEFA Women’s EURO titles with Germany, yet she and her Frankfurt team-mates were acutely aware of being involved in an important step for the women’s game.
"Back then, it definitely was," she says. "It was a highlight, even for us international players who’d played in a European Championship, but especially for those who didn’t play for their countries. Both for them and us, the UEFA Women’s Cup final was like representing your country, especially since it was like playing a national team because the other clubs mostly consisted of international players. On top of that, you were also representing your country. It was truly magnificent and an absolute honour. And it was also really, really important, and a milestone for women’s football."
It was hard to miss the significance even then. Although this season has brought record crowds of over 90,000 at the Camp Nou and eye-catching viewing figures, the first final stirred plenty of interest at the time. "The excitement levels were high," says Jones. "I remember there was already a heightened media interest in the game. There was a sense of anticipation. Every interview was something special because it was the first ever final. It was a real highlight to play in that inaugural final. I can’t even describe it; it was truly special to us. And the days leading up to the final were just full of anticipation."
The game itself drew more than 12,000 spectators to the Waldstadion in Frankfurt, the home ground of Eintracht Frankfurt’s men’s team. "It was a big deal for us," adds Jones, a native of the city, though she spent much of the final trying to stifle the threat posed by Umeå and their array of Swedish internationals. She, her colleagues and the partisan crowd were kept on edge by a "nerveracking" encounter, but that only served to magnify their joy at the final whistle.
Once again, however, Jones found herself somewhat overcome by the magnitude of the event. "It’s a really nice moment when they hand out the medals, when you walk up the stairs to collect your prize," she recalls. "You accept the medal and then you lift the cup. But at that moment, you’re not really aware yet of what you’ve actually accomplished. We’d won the UEFA Women’s Cup for the first time, but it’s like you’re floating on a cloud. You’re just so happy, you’re enjoying the moment. And then you pick up the trophy and think to yourself: 'We did it. This is great.'"
"We were just in such high spirits. We were so proud. All our families were there, and it felt great. Everybody was able to celebrate with us. We stayed in the stadium for a while, signing all the autographs. In those moments, you don’t get tired."
Driving the game forward
Jones enjoyed plenty more triumphs before the end of her playing days, not least helping Frankfurt to their second UEFA Women’s Cup title in 2005/06 – when she hit another final goal in a 7-2 aggregate victory against Turbine Potsdam. The centre-back also won the 2003 FIFA Women’s World Cup before adding a third consecutive EURO crown in 2005.
She has continued to impact the game since retirement too, first as president of the organising committee for the 2011 Women’s World Cup and later serving as assistant and head coach of Germany. But perhaps none of those successes rippled through the women’s game like that landmark European victory with her hometown club. "It was really special to us," she explains. "It made us very proud, and we got a little carried away in the moment. It encouraged us as well. It was a signal to us, to the club, but also to the media and everybody else, that with this title we could do more for women’s football – demand more, get more recognition. Accomplishments like that are not only important for the club, but every final and every game we play in can have an effect on the whole of women’s football. Afterwards, you attract more spectators, you grab the media’s interest. So [that title] was super important, and I think we were able to use that success to attract more attention." It is a legacy worth celebrating. And worth remembering too.
A new era for women's football
Since Jones and Frankfurt's UEFA Women's Cup success in 2002, it is not just the competition's name that has changed.
This season’s edition of the Women’s Champions League has taken what was already a transformed competition to a whole new level – and no one is more delighted than the former Germany defender.
"The game itself and the players have just constantly developed," she says. "Athleticism, technique, everything around it, the structures… It’s all become more professional. And it shows. “We have such strength in depth in Europe, which clearly shows that we’ve really advanced women’s football, not just on the pitch but also off it. That’s an important development, but it mustn’t stop there. It’s a constant development, and there’s always potential somewhere. I think what’s been crucial is that all the clubs, all the countries, are trying to build up their structures, particularly at youth level, so that every potential female footballer who’s talented enough to play for the national team gets spotted."
Having served the women’s game in various capacities, Jones has also been pleased to witness a joint effort to take the sport forward, pointing to the introduction of the Women’s Champions League group stage as an example. "We listened to the players there, and it was crucial that the players confirmed it and spoke their minds. It’s so important for us to have more teams who can play in this competition and test themselves at that level. It was both an overdue step and an important step if we’re talking about establishing that strength in depth."
With crowds, investment and media interest all booming, it might seem tempting for a player of Jones’ generation to feel a twinge of jealousy. Not so, insists the 49-year-old, who remains keen for progress to continue. "The only thing you feel is pride and happiness for the teams. And I want to see even more of that. We’ve really had to work hard to get here, and it’s a pleasure to see what we’ve accomplished. I’m happy that the teams can play in such a setting. I get goosebumps and just really want to see more of that!"
This article is an edited version of the interview which appears in the official UEFA Women's Champions League final programme.