Barca and Juve look to kick on
More men’s clubs embrace the women’s game
“The fact that Juventus will now be ploughing its resources into women’s football is a great step forward for the game” Juve coach Rita Guarino
The power of the brand, and what it could mean for the future of women’s football, was underlined by one of the summer’s most surprising transfers, that of England striker Toni Duggan from Manchester City to Barcelona.
The Catalan club are not the giants of the women’s game that they are in the men’s. Although a long-established team, they have not won their domestic league since 2015 and this season’s run to the Women’s Champions League semi-finals was their best to date.
So, Duggan’s move was not as notable as had she moved, for example, to Lyon, who are back-to-back Champions League winners. But, along with Real Madrid and Manchester United, Barcelona are football’s biggest brand – and the only one of those three involved in the adult women’s game. Duggan’s transfer trended on Twitter, featured on BBC news, attracted unparalleled UK print coverage and led to an invite to ITV’s breakfast-television sofa.
The transfer followed news from Italy that Juventus, another of football’s most storied outfits, had taken over a women’s club and re-badged it under their own name. Across the French border, Marseille were linked with USA keeper Hope Solo, suggesting intent from OM to take on rivals Lyon and Paris Saint-Germain in the women’s game. Meanwhile, Duggan’s first club, Everton, have started signing their players to fulltime professional contracts in preparation for their return to the FA Women’s Super League top flight.
These are all major men’s clubs and their commitment to the women’s game, be it fresh or renewed, suggest that a tipping point may have been reached. Finally, it seems, the men’s game is embracing the women’s.
It is a trend that is also gathering pace in the US, with North Carolina Courage the latest National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) team to be partnered with a male club (NASL’s North Carolina) following Portland Thorns, Houston Dash and Orlando Pride. Though Courage are actually a franchise switch from Western New York Flash, Dash and Pride are offshoots of MLS sides Houston Dynamo and Orlando City respectively, while Thorns were founder members of NWSL in 2013 and share ownership with MLS club Portland Timbers.
On both sides of the Atlantic it seems that the way forward is to be aligned with a men’s club. This brings obvious advantages in respect of funding, facilities and shared expertise, and increasingly competitions are being won by such clubs. The current champions of the major European leagues are Manchester City, Wolfsburg, Lyon, Atletico Madrid and Fiorentina, all adjuncts to well-known men’s clubs.
The situation is similar in the Champions League. This used to be dominated by stand-alone women’s clubs such as Sweden’s Umea and Djurgarden/ Alvsjo, Germany’s Turbine Potsdam and Frankfurt, and Denmark’s Fortuna Hjorring. This year, however, the last four were Lyon, PSG, Barcelona and Manchester City. Next year’s competition still includes stand-alone clubs such as Glasgow City, Brescia and Fortuna Hjorring, but the majority are offshoots of men’s teams, with such teams as Ajax, Lillestrom, Linfield, Sparta Prague, MTK Budapest and Scotland’s Hibernian also in the competition.
The drawback to this development is that clubs are reliant on the fortunes of the men’s club and the whims of their owners. In England, Charlton Athletic disbanded their successful women’s team when the men were relegated from the Premier League in 2007. The team was re-established but is yet to regain its previous standing. This year Notts County, an established WSL 1 club and 2015 Women’s FA Cup finalists, folded when the parent club, which was under new ownership, said they could no longer afford to subsidise it.
County, however, are a fourth-tier men’s club. Funding the losses inevitable in the women’s game in the short- and medium-term will not be a problem for the likes of Juventus. Their decision to become involved follows the success of Fiorentina, who won the title in their second season. Juventus have taken over existing women’s Serie A club Cuneo, 50 miles south of Turin. Rita Guarino, who won 99 caps for Italy and five league titles as a player, has been named coach.
She said: “The fact that Juventus will now be ploughing its resources into women’s football is a great step forward for the game. Women’s football has made great strides in the last 10 years, both on a European and global scale. A
lot of investment has gone into the game to give girls the chance to go professional and that has raised the overall level of quality significantly.”
Guarino, who was previously coaching Italy’s under-17s, added: “The Italian national side isn’t as high in the world rankings as we would like; other countries have really kicked on in the last decade or so and left us behind. One thing that certainly isn’t lacking in Italy is talent, but to take things to the next stage you need to be working full-time.”
That view is followed by Everton who were awarded Notts County’s vacant place in WSL 1. This was partly because they won WSL 2’s Spring Series (the interim competition bridging the switch to a winter season), but also because of ambitious funding plans. The arrival of billionaire Farhad Moshiri has enabled Everton’s men’s club to spend heavily in the transfer market and the club’s new wealth also seems set to revive a women’s team that a decade ago was second only to all-conquering Arsenal.
One other development underlining the new dynamic was the transfer of Mandy Islacker from Frankfurt to Bayern Munich. Frankfurt, who are not linked to a men’s club, won the league in eight of their first 11 seasons but in none of the subsequent nine. Bayern, meanwhile, have finished 1st, 1st and 2nd.
It may be too simplistic to suggest this is a move from the past to the future, for Frankfurt remain a strong side – but it rather looks that way.
Partnered...NWSL sides North Carolina Courage (in grey) and Orlando Pride
High profile...Toni Duggan (in white) has joined Barcelona