Let me entertain you?
While the match in Cardiff showcased enough positives to confirm the upsurge in technical ability in the women's game, the after-taste raised questions about whether the final had tickled gourmet palates. UEFA's technical observers were anxious not to appear negative about what had been a grandiose event played out before a crowd of 22,423.
At the same time, they expressed reservations. "I suspect," commented Hope Powell, "that the tactical approach didn't help the game to be more enjoyable as a spectacle, even though the second half was better."
"As a coach, I have to say that I would probably have adopted the same approach as they did," added Anja Palusevic. "But
I was a bit concerned that, in a game that had a big audience, there might not have been enough to excite people who may have been watching women's football for the first time."
Admittedly, the 2017 final was flavoured by special ingredients. The two teams, rivals in the same domestic competitions and opponents in a national cup final a few days before travelling to Wales, knew each other inside out. Ditto the coaches – Patrice Lair having moved to Paris after winning ten trophies with Olympique Lyonnais between 2010 and 2014 and the possessor, in consequence, of profound knowledge about the opposing club and players.
As Powell reflected, "apart from the game itself, it was a final that generated a lot of nervous energy." On the other hand, the observers recalled how the previous campaign's final in Reggio Emilia had been cut from similar cloth, with Lyon dominating and opponents Wolfsburg happy to play from the back foot and prioritise compact defensive work to counter the opposition's virtues.
The fact that, when the two sides walked out at the Cardiff City Stadium, the respective squads had jointly accumulated 973 appearances in the UEFA Women's Champions League, offered palpable guarantees of quality and experience. "The question to debate," Powell added, "is whether we would have preferred the talent on show to be used for a more attacking approach."
Does the widespread desire to promote women's football, broaden fan bases and increase audiences give 'entertainment value' a more prominent place in the equation? If so, what role could (or should) coaches play in terms of offering the public an attractive 'product'?
Career or cash?
"Managing 26 international players is no easy task," reflected Gérard Prêcheur, looking back over his three years on the Lyon bench. The fact the squad lists in Cardiff featured players of 11 different nationalities demonstrated that the UEFA Women's Champions League is approaching the cosmopolitan parameters prevalent in the men's version.
But, evidently, there are major differences when it comes to financial parameters. The presence of Barcelona and Manchester City in the semi-finals, for example, illustrated the benefits of investing in professional structures. And transatlantic recruitment – including some loan deals to exploit the close season in the United States – confirms that clubs regard the UEFA competition as a major prize and a major incentive to strengthen squads.
But coins have two sides. The relatively limited number of fully professional clubs in European women's football arguably makes it easier for the elite to operate as vacuum cleaners, sucking up the best available talent. At the same time, this creates a dilemma for the players.
On the one hand, a survey would surely reveal that they would undoubtedly prefer to play regular first-team football at the highest possible level. On the other hand, opportunities to earn financial rewards are few and far between.
As a player who could walk into the first team at almost any club, what would you prefer? To sit on the bench at a big club with a nice pay cheque at the end of the month? Or to play regularly for lesser financial rewards? If you had to choose one or the other, what is more important? A decent salary or a career pathway? And, as a club or national team coach, what advice would you give to your players?
An imposing question?
Yet again, the coaches of the top eight clubs in the UEFA Women's Champions League were male. The trend has become so generalised that it no longer raises eyebrows. In the last three seasons, the only female coach among the quarter-finalist teams was Brescia's Milena Bertolini in the 2015/16 campaign. The rarity of female coaches has become such an archetypal talking point that it makes little sense to perennially rake over the ashes. On the other hand, is it normal that, while the percentage of female coaches at national team levels is steadily creeping up, Europe's premier club competition seems to have settled into a rut?
In this day and age, there is no shortage of female coaches with the UEFA B diploma which is the requisite level for occupants of technical areas at UEFA Women's Champions League matches. And UEFA's ongoing projects aimed at encouraging former players to extend their activity in the game by moving into coaching will, in all probability, deepen the pool of qualified female technicians in a not-too-distant future.
As debating points, the issues could be, firstly, to question why there are so few female coaches on team sheets and, secondly, if anything could, administratively, be done with a view to redressing the balance. With regard to the first talking point, Powell said in Cardiff: "I think recruitment could be an issue – and I suspect that sometimes the person or persons responsible for recruiting at clubs don't really have women's football all that close to the heart. I may be wrong but I do wonder if female coaches are being offered the right number of opportunities."
The second question was debated by the technical observers in the light of FIFA's policy at the final tournaments of the world body's age-limit competitions. The regulations for these events stipulate that at least one member of the coaching staff must be female with the rider that "ideally, at least one half of the team officials should be female". Should similar stipulations be written into the regulations for the UEFA Women's Champions League?
Among the technical observers, the matter aroused mixed feelings. On the one hand, FIFA's stance was regarded as a bold move and a step in the right direction. But, on the other hand, there were doubts about whether imposing female coaches is the right way to address the issue. What is your opinion?