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UEFA Women's Champions League: group stage success creates knockout round excitement

Huge global TV audiences, record crowds and a big thumbs up from the players all point to the success of this season’s inaugural group stage in the UEFA Women’s Champions League.

"We felt a bit like little kids before Christmas," says Servette FCCF’s Sandy Maendly. "It was special for us – we would never have imagined competing in it this season."

The subject of her excitement is the UEFA Women’s Champions League, which this season did away with the old mixture of qualifying mini-tournaments and knockout ties in the competition proper to launch a 16-team home-and-away group stage, running between October and December. The Swiss midfielder’s team were drawn in Group A alongside heavy-hitters Wolfsburg, Juventus and Chelsea, which guaranteed a feast of home games against quality opposition, whetting the appetite in Maendly’s home town.

New UEFA Women’s Champions League format explained

"I’m from Geneva, so it is always special to be able to play in your own stadium," she says, referring to the city’s 30,000-capacity Stade de Genève, where Servette played their group games. It was a big step up from the cosier confines of Servette’s usual home, the Stade de la Fontenette, but huge crowds totally justified the switch.

"This year, to be playing in the Champions League for the first time – with fans – made it even more beautiful. The club did a lot of promotion and publicity in the city for the three matches. There was a lot of talk on social channels and posters in the city; there was a bit of a buzz. People got to know us because of the Champions League so when they realised we had qualified, suddenly people who had never been before came for those matches. Against Chelsea there were over 12,000."

Nadine Kessler, UEFA chief of women’s football:

"In this first season of the centralised UEFA Women’s Champions League we had 13 group-stage matches played in major venues. We are delighted to see this trend continue into the quarter-finals, where seven of the eight clubs will play in their bigger stadium. It’s an incredible occasion and a quarter-final line-up that promises world-class football in world-class class arenas. Big moments like these are what women’s club football needs."

A bright future for women's football

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By raising the visibility and competitiveness of elite European women’s football, the new group stage is a key driver of UEFA’s five-year strategy for securing a more sustainable future for the women’s game, Time for Action. The competition was given unprecedented broadcast coverage thanks to a ground-breaking worldwide deal with DAZN and YouTube, which ensured that every game in the competition proper would be shown for free for the first two seasons. In previous years, coverage was on a piecemeal basis prior to the final, with little chance to watch clubs outside their home territories. Now every game is available on tap, and the group stage alone drew more than 14 million views from over 210 countries and territories around the world.

The impressive numbers from the UEFA Women's Champions League group stages
The impressive numbers from the UEFA Women's Champions League group stages

The revamp also gave the first half of the season a proper narrative, rather than a couple of rounds of often one-sided knockout ties. The ups and downs of the likes of Arsenal, Juventus, Wolfsburg and Chelsea provided new drama. "This needed to happen," said Gunners defender Leah Williamson. "Before, you could be in and out of the Champions League like that, whereas now there’s exposure for the women’s game. Getting to play in those high-quality games – and six of them just in the group stage – is really important for us and for the growth of the women’s game."

It certainly captured the imagination, evidenced by the number of fans flocking to watch the games in person. In the last season not impacted by the global pandemic and where the rounds of 32 and 16 were still played over two legs – in 2019/20 – the average crowd across 48 games was 1,732. Over the same number of matches, the group stage mean figure this season was almost double at 3,381, despite some continued COVID restrictions. That included 18,344 at Parc des Princes for Paris Saint-Germain v Real Madrid and, as Maendly mentioned, a Swiss record 12,782 watching Servette FCCF face Chelsea in Geneva. Those two games were part of an aggregate attendance of nearly 60,000 across the eight Matchday 3 games.

New teams and bigger stadiums

Listen to the new UEFA Women’s Champions League anthem

That momentum continues into the spring. It’s helped by a new Together #WePlayStrong advert, which promotes the Skills for Life campaign, and the new UEFA Women’s Champions League Physical Analysis report, which contains details of the quarter-finals onwards from the past two seasons. Almost every knockout game this season will be at each club’s main stadium; The quarter-final return leg Barcelona v Real Madrid will be played in front of a packed Camp Nou and is set to break another attendance record.

The new format also opened up opportunities for clubs other than the established powers. Three contenders – HB Køge, Hoffenheim and Real Madrid – made their European debuts, while Benfica, Juventus, Servette and WFC Kharkiv were among the final 16 for the first time in any format. Breidablik, meanwhile, were the first Icelandic side to play in any full UEFA club competition group stage. Forward Tiffany McCarty said, "It’s every soccer player’s dream to be playing in the Champions League, so I’m grateful that I can be a part of this."

As well as short-term benefits for players and fans alike, Maendly anticipates long-term gains. "There are more games at the top level between big teams and there are more clubs across Europe with women’s teams – it’s interesting for development of women’s football," she says. "Now there are a lot more female references whereas before, girls who played football all watched the men – having a group stage really makes it like the Champions League." So tune in. The drama’s only just beginning.

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