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Dawn of a new era

Hosting the women's final in a separate venue from the men's from now on is recognition of the giant strides the UEFA Women's Champions League has made in the past decade.

Five-time champions Lyon are chasing more success against Barcelona on Saturday
Five-time champions Lyon are chasing more success against Barcelona on Saturday ©AFP/Getty Images

When the final whistle brought last season's UEFA Women's Champions League final to a close, the packed crowd at the Valeriy Lobanovskyi Stadium in Kyiv had witnessed history. Not just a thrilling contest. Nor even simply a record fifth title for Lyon. The French club's extra-time comeback against Wolfsburg was a riveting affair, but it will perhaps be remembered as the perfect ending to a chapter in the women's game.

This year's final in Budapest will be the tenth under the UEFA Women's Champions League banner. It will also be very different. The competition's first major evolution came when the UEFA Women's Cup took on new branding and single-match finals in 2009/10, but every showpiece since then has unfolded in the shadow of the men's UEFA Champions League decider, taking place on a Thursday in a smaller stadium in the same or a nearby city. Starting in Budapest, the UEFA Women's Champions League final will truly come into its own.

"The potential for women's football is limitless and it was with this in mind that we decided to separate the two UEFA Champions League events," explained UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin ahead of the last joint finals in Kyiv. "That will give the women's game a platform of its own, to continue to grow and to become an unmissable event and television spectacle in its own right."

Camille Abily is a key figure in OL's success story
Camille Abily is a key figure in OL's success story©Getty Images

Camille Abily could not be more delighted. The Lyon legend now works for the club's academy and chairs its charitable foundation after she retired with her fifth European title last year – closing a chapter of her own. "The good thing is that we don't 'need' the men's Champions League in order to exist, and that's something very interesting," she said. "In addition, it also allows us to take women's football to countries where it may not be as developed, as is the case this year with Hungary."

Faye White, part of the Arsenal side that won the old UEFA Women's Cup and a player in the competition from the very first season in 2001/02, agrees. "It's just showing that the game has grown and that the demand is there," said the former England captain. "Now it stands out on its own without being under the shadow of the men's final a couple of days later. That helps it to be given the stage that it deserves even more."

The competition has certainly come a long way from fairly humble beginnings less than 20 years ago, when only 33 associations entered clubs; that number is now closing on 50. The inaugural season also yielded only 13 four-figure crowds, compared with more than 40 this term. But what it did do in its early days was give players a glimpse of a potential full-time future, at a time when few of even the biggest European leagues offered that opportunity.

Faye White tasted domestic and European glory
Faye White tasted domestic and European glory©The FA via Getty Images

"It was exciting," recalled White of the away trips. "A bit of an eye-opener as well, but also just an exciting experience to have that feeling of being professional." The advent of the UEFA Women's Champions League era in 2009/10 helped to move that process along, putting the competition in the same bracket as the men's top club tournament. "Renaming it the 'Champions League' showed that the competition was gaining importance," added Abily. "That allowed it to make an even bigger name for itself and made things easier for sponsors and partners in terms of exposure."

The former France midfielder has watched the growth first hand, having got her first taste of the tournament with Montpellier in 2004. "For the qualifying rounds in countries like Portugal, there were maybe 100 spectators overall," she remembered. "Then, one of my greatest Champions League memories goes back to 2012, when we played in front of 50,000 fans at Munich's Olympiastadion. We could see how much it had developed, whether it was in terms of game quality and intensity, or in terms of exposure and attendance."

Although that attendance record from the 2012 final endures, crowd numbers have kept rising overall. So too has the competition's profile, and that showpiece game from seven years ago was a telling moment. Abily's Lyon clinched a 2-0 victory against Frankfurt – the dominant side from the opening decade – confirming the potential of women's teams backed by major clubs in the men's game. Lyon were pioneers in that regard, and independent outfits such as Frankfurt and Sweden's Umeå, who had led the way towards professionalisation, have struggled to match their resources.

Arsenal were the first women's section of a men's club to win the title, though their final triumph over Umeå in 2007 was something of a surprise. The Gunners' financial commitment in those days is also dwarfed by the funds now available to Lyon and others, but White is full of respect for the holders' trailblazing role. "They've got the support and the finances there, and the passion that they're going to treat the women's team as equal," said the retired defender, who now works in Arsenal's back office. "They were before their time in being able to do that."

Barcelona met Bayern in a high-profile semi-final
Barcelona met Bayern in a high-profile semi-final©Getty Images

Lyon are far from alone. They were joined by Chelsea, Bayern München and Barcelona in this season's semi-finals, with Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester City and Atlético Madrid having also started the campaign with a realistic chance of a men's and women's UEFA Champions League double. Indeed, a match between Atlético and Barcelona attracted 60,739 spectators in March, a record for a women's league game in Europe.

New highs have been set elsewhere, with 39,027 recently watching Juventus play Fiorentina and 22,911 attending Lyon's semi-final home leg against Chelsea – a UEFA Women's Champions League record for a match other than the final. The investment by top clubs has fuelled UEFA's decision not just to separate the two finals but also to seek separate sponsors for the women's competition.

Nadine Kessler won the 2013 final with Wolfsburg
Nadine Kessler won the 2013 final with Wolfsburg©Getty Images

"This is a long-term project, but it's heartening to see the game become more professional across Europe," says Nadine Kessler, a winner as a player with Turbine Potsdam and Wolfsburg, and now UEFA's head of women’s football. "With that comes increased opportunity, exposure and affinity."

Kessler's old playing rival Abily concurs: "Exposure is becoming increasingly important. It leads sponsors and partners to think, 'If we sponsor these teams, people will talk about us internationally and even worldwide.' It's become something very interesting for them."

That has looked increasingly clear in recent months. On the day that Nike announced it was following Visa as UEFA's second women's football sponsor, the company held a major media launch for the 14 female-specific kits it is producing for teams at the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup. This summer's tournament in France is set to be another big hit, following on from the records set at UEFA Women's EURO 2017 in the Netherlands – where attendances approached 250,000, television audiences increased by 50 million on 2013, and online figures more than doubled.

Man. City will face a new challenge in the form of neighbours United
Man. City will face a new challenge in the form of neighbours United©Getty Images

With the likes of Manchester United and both Milan clubs also entering the women's realm, this has allowed more and more players to go full time – well over 1,000 by 2018 and increasing fast, with the English Women's Super League, for one, now strictly professional. Of course, there is still huge potential for growth, and the UEFA Women's Champions League is no exception. For White, this means that rounds earlier than the final could also become marquee occasions.

"It might be that these big games, certainly in the quarter-finals and semi-finals, are hosted in bigger grounds in order to attract bigger groups of fans. And that it's not just the finals that are hosted there."

"It's now become more attractive and more of a spectacle," said Abily, for whom the start of a new chapter in the UEFA Women's Champions League is a moment to savour – to say nothing of the tournament due for kick-off in her homeland. "We really are on the right track, and with France hosting the World Cup this summer, there will be a springboard to go even further."

This article appears in the UEFA Women's Champions League final programme