Challenging the status quo
“The reality is that the best players from the national teams gravitate towards the clubs who pay the best wages and are able to dedicate the most resources to women’s football,” said former England head coach, Hope Powell, when the team of UEFA technical observers met after the final in Reggio Emilia. “But this will even itself out.” A head count among her colleagues might have revealed equal quantities of nodding and shaking. Her positive thinking was laudable. But was she being overly optimistic?
The 2015/16 season provided some irrefutable evidence. It ended with the sixth of the last seven finals to pit a club from Germany against one from France – a fact that endorses the first part of Powell’s opinion. The season also featured some heavyweight results in its latter stages, notably the eventual champions’ respective 9-1 and 7-0 home wins against SK Slavia Praha and Paris Saint-Germain – even if the latter was coloured by the freak burst of first-half injuries which distorted the defensive shape of Farid Benstiti’s team. The first debating point is whether such eye-catching scorelines are positive for the image of Europe’s premier club competition for women.
Coming in from the cold
When it comes to challenging the status quo, another debating point is whether anything can be done to encourage the Nordic countries – authentic challengers at national-team level – to make a similar impact in the club competition. FC Rosengård were a case in point during the 2015/16 campaign. The Swedish club rounded off an 8-2 aggregate win against ASD Verona CF on 19 November 2015 to secure a place among the top eight.
But, when required to take on defending champions 1. FFC Frankfurt in Malmo on 23 March, Jack Majgaard Jensen’s team were still engaged in pre-season training. What is more, the reconstruction of the squad during the close season meant that only five of the starters against Verona in November took the field against the German visitors in March. Rosengård did not open their domestic league season until 16 April – by which time they had already been knocked out of Europe, 17 days earlier. Despite the improvement registered during the extra week of pre-season work between the home and away legs and a highly creditable 1-0 win in Frankfurt, they suffered elimination in a penalty shoot-out.
The problem related to the winter recess is widespread in eastern and northern Europe in both the women’s and men’s editions of the UEFA Champions League and is a perennial thorny issue. The debating point from a coaching perspective is what more could be done to bring teams up to top speed for the crucial springtime fixtures and thereby raise the competitive level of the competition as a whole?
Results v player development
Continuing to pull on the thread of challenging the status quo and upgrading the competition, another potential talking point to emerge is related to player development. The current status quo in Europe presents a wide diversity in terms of the competitive levels in domestic championships. Even some of the stronger countries can offer examples of clubs whose domestic domination is so accentuated that they are required to engage top gear in only a few fixtures per season. For many of the players participating in the UEFA Women’s Champions League, the continental competition represents a unique opportunity to measure themselves against the best or to learn to compete against teams from diverse footballing cultures. The question is whether more could be done to propel players along this particular learning curve.
One of the important elements in this equation is pegged to national-team football rather than the club game, with UEFA, in addition to the U17 and U19 championships, offering opportunities in the successfully implanted development tournaments. In the longer term, it is hoped that this international experience will be grafted on to club football . But the question for now is what more could be done in the short term?
In its current format, the UEFA Women’s Champions League kicks off with clusters of four clubs competing in mini-tournaments. There are evident positives attached to a schedule that entails meeting three different opponents. On the other hand, three games in six days in August can signify physical challenges and, inevitably, a lot of teams bow out of the competition without having played a match in front of their own supporters and, in consequence, without any promotional opportunities attached to their participation in the UEFA competition. How do the positives and negatives weigh up?
A first-round knockout
The eight group winners earned the opportunity to scale the learning curve a little further by joining 24 other clubs in the first knockout round of the competition. In 2015/16, one of them, FC Twente, sprang a major surprise by eliminating FC Bayern München on the away-goals rule. This meant that the champions of Germany were among the eight clubs who departed the competition after playing two games – one fewer, obviously, than the teams involved in the qualifying mini-groups.
Under a knockout system, the luck of the draw can be a decisive factor. Glasgow City FC, quarter-finalists in 2014/15, had the misfortune to be drawn against a strong Chelsea FC team and also bowed out after playing a single game in front of their supporters. It was a similar story for Standard de Liège. The Belgian club, finalists in all three seasons of the BeNe League, were drawn against 1. FFC Frankfurt and made a rapid exit.
In terms of promoting player development by offering them greater opportunities on the international stage, is this an ideal scenario? During the 2015/16 knockout rounds, only four teams outside France and Germany (FC Barcelona, ACF Brescia Calcio Femminile, Rosengård and Slavia Praha) played more than four matches. On the other hand, Frankfurt, VfL Wolfsburg, Olympique Lyonnais and Paris played eight or nine matches apiece. Is this simply perpetuating the ‘status quo’?
As Jarmo Matikainen, the UEFA technical observer from Finland, commented: “
International games set the standards and they are the highlight of the season for individual top players. They motivate and inspire everyone at the club. If a nation’s top clubs only get to play two or three games during a very short period of the season, it can slow down development in many ways.”
Searches for utopia are frequently grounded – or at least inhibited – by harsh financial realities. And the parameters of women’s football are no exception to this. But the talking points to emerge are whether the introduction of a group stage into the UEFA Women’s Champions League, to mirror the men’s competition, would be viable – and beneficial from a player-development viewpoint? How can we best encourage the ‘emerging clubs’ to gather momentum and, to recall Hope Powell’s words, help women’s club football in Europe to “even itself out”?