Is it coincidence that five of the last six finals have pitted a German club against French opponents? The question is largely rhetorical with the coaches of clubs in other countries publicly acknowledging the status of Germans and French as pre-season favourites. On the way to the Berlin final, Paris Saint-Germain had to contend with thorny ties against their domestic rivals Olympique Lyonnais and then, in the semi-finals, the defending champions from Germany, VfL Wolfsburg. Pundits would have probably backed permutations among those four clubs if asked to predict the identity of the finalists. There might be Scandinavian voices of dissent, especially bearing in mind that Sweden's FC Rosengård gave Wolfsburg a tough contest, eventually resolved in the German club's favour by the away-goals rule. On the other hand, the crushing 13-0 aggregate victory by 1. FFC Frankfurt over Denmark's Brøndby IF in the semi-finals was an invitation to feel that the German team was, quite simply, different class.
As it happens, Brøndby were runaway leaders in the Danish championship at the time when they were roundly defeated by Frankfurt. Colin Bell's team had previously despatched England's Bristol Academy WFC by a 12-0 aggregate margin in the quarter-finals. And Dave Edmondson's side had qualified for the last eight in a closely-fought tie against FC Barcelona, who subsequently secured their fourth successive Spanish league title in a campaign where they scored 93 goals and conceded nine. In the wake of elimination, Barça opted to make its women's team professional as from the 2015/16 season. How many clubs are equipped to tread this path in the pursuit of greater competitiveness? Glasgow City FC reached the UEFA Women's Champions League quarter-finals for the first time on the back of eight successive Scottish league titles, three consecutive league and cup trebles and a record which proudly revealed one domestic defeat in six seasons.
The debating points to arise from these facts are by no means exclusive to the women's game. They radiate from the diversity of levels in domestic championships and the number of truly competitive matches which players at the top clubs have to address in the average season. How many times are the players seriously challenged in their domestic competitions? What are the repercussions in terms of player development?
Farid Benstiti obliquely raised these questions while leading Paris into the Berlin final. His team had finished in second place in the French championship, losing the two fixtures against Lyon and winning the other 20 matches. Lyon won all 22 matches in the domestic league, scoring 147 goals and conceding six. The Champions League had offered an opportunity for the Parisian club to redress the balance – and, in an intense tie, they edged a 2-1 aggregate win. Benstiti referred to lack of big-match experience in his analysis of certain match situations during the equally narrow win over Wolfsburg in the semi-final and, after the defeat by Frankfurt in Berlin, commented "in the first half, our collective experience in the Champions League was not enough".
Germany continues to set benchmarks and a talking point is to what extent standards in the Bundesliga is instrumental in giving players that extra competitive edge. Bell's team, before travelling to Berlin, had finished in third place behind FC Bayern München and Wolfsburg in a championship which went to the wire. How important a factor is the strength of domestic competitions?
When do we play?
The dates set for the FIFA Women's World Cup in Canada obliged UEFA to step aside from the recently-trodden path of staging the UEFA Women's Champions League final two days prior to the men's final – and in the same city. The 2015 men's final in Berlin was scheduled for Saturday 6 June – the very day when the ball started rolling in Canada. The need to stage the women's final in Berlin as a stand-alone event provoked reflections on the present and future of the competition.
The stand-alone final at the Friedrich-Ludwig-Jahn-Sportpark certainly attracted a more-than-healthy attendance of 18,300. The codicil, however, might be to point out that it was a final where a German team was playing in Germany. Perversely, the 'healthy attendance' could therefore be used as an argument by the doubters who would favour a return to the home-and-away formula of yesteryear, whereby each leg of the final could be watched by a 'home crowd'. Forward-thinkers, however, might insist that a single match offers far greater opportunities to brand and promote the final – and that factor, in terms of promotion, media interest and coverage, is likely to be significantly more extensive if the match is attached to the men's final.
Discussion could also be stretched to other stages of the competition. The use of the UEFA Women's Champions League as a promotion for women's football at all levels raises questions about the proportion of games currently being screened by TV networks and thus being made available to a wider audience. Is the current fixture list the most appropriate? What are the days of the week and the kick-off times that would be the most compatible with the wish to attract a maximum number of spectators to the stadium and the opportunities to find viable slots for maximum TV coverage?
A man's game?
The eight quarter-finalists in the UEFA Women's Champions League hailed from six different national associations. But there was a common denominator. All eight coaches were men. This has become a perennial talking point in women's football where, at national team level, nine of the 12 coaches who led teams to UEFA Women's EURO 2013 were male and, quoting a further example to illustrate how deeply the trend is taking root, all eight finalists at the 2014 UEFA European Women's Under-19 Championship were coached by men.
Discussion is sometimes a delicate matter, due to concerns that it implies criticism of the male coaches concerned – which, of course, it does not. The eight coaches involved in the quarter-finals of the UEFA Women's Champions League had diverse levels of experience, ranging from the lengthy careers at women's teams by technicians such as Ralf Kellermann (Wolfsburg), Eddie Wolecki (Glasgow City FC before his departure this summer) or Farid Benstiti (Paris) to former Denmark international Per Nielsen (Brøndby IF) whose appointment at the end of 2014 signified his debut in women's football.
One of the items in the credit column is the view that the predominant presence of male coaches reflects the growing kudos attached to women’s football – and not least to the top club competition. On the other hand, there are debating points about whether the decision-makers responsible for appointments always give equal opportunities to qualified female coaches – or, indeed, that women are offered easy access to the courses which give them their coaching qualifications. UEFA is currently engaged in a project aimed at encouraging women to further coaching careers and facilitating their education. Is it important to increase the percentage of female coaches working at top level? If so, what more can be done to achieve this goal?