Barca and Juve look to kick on

More men’s clubs em­brace the women’s game

World Soccer - - Women’s Football -

“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

Boss...Rita Guar­ino

High pro­file...Toni Dug­gan (in white) has joined Barcelona

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