USA 0 – Europe 1
March 8, 2017
This article was originally published in Populous Magazine, our biannual publication featuring news, information, and trends from the worlds of sport, entertainment, and major public events. Find out more, and sign up to receive a free copy, here.
For years American female soccer players have outshone their European counterparts. But with support from Europe’s top male clubs, the European women are now snapping at their heels, as Carrie Dunn, author of women’s soccer book The Roar of the Lionesses, discovers.
After years of being left on the sidelines, European soccer is finally making a bid for glory in the women’s game. All across the continent there have been moves to bring the women’s clubs under the umbrella of the much bigger men’s clubs, with access to all the accompanying facilities, fanbases and financial power. Manchester City FC, in the English Premier League, is the shining example of this, but it is happening in all the other European soccer superpowers, too. After decades of stuttering progress, female professional players now have the option of playing in virtually any country across the continent, knowing that the standard of competition is often excellent.
Take English full back Paige Williams, for example, who decided to leave Everton LFC [Ladies’ Football Club] in 2015 and try her luck in Italy, first at ACF Brescia Femminile and now at AGSM Verona. “Since I was 13 I’ve always had the desire to move abroad and play,” says the 21-year-old. “The year I moved I was in a massive comfort zone in England and I needed a change. I liked the idea of learning a new culture and thought I would develop so much as a player and as a person, and that’s exactly what happened. It has been the best experience of my life and a decision I am so happy I made.”
Williams could not be happier to have gained extensive Champions League experience too. “I was lucky enough to make my Champions League debut in a quarter-final match away at VFL Wolfsburg, one of the best teams in the world,” she recalls. “For me, the German league is still the best in Europe. Wolfsburg had their own stadium and training facilities, the same as Manchester City have in England now. It’s so good to see this. As a player, all you want is to go in every day and train on a good quality pitch. I hope that, one day, every women’s team can have these types of facilities.”
“Currently we see some great women’s soccer, but not often enough. Having high-level club competitions internationally would be a real shot in the arm for the women’s game.”Moya Dodd / Former soccer player and now member of FIFA’s executive committee
Striker Natalia Pablos Sanchon left her native Spain in 2013 to forge a career in England, first at Bristol Academy (now Bristol City WFC [Women’s Football Club]) and then at Arsenal LFC, but chose to return to Rayo Vallecano de Madrid in 2016. She says the standard in Spain has improved immeasurably since her initial departure, and that is down to consistent, sustained financial investment.
“We can now watch games on TV, and now we have a sponsor for the league. These are massive changes.” But she hopes more Spanish clubs will invest in their women’s teams. “We need a bit more money, just to treat players as [full-time] professionals.”
The FIFA Women’s World Cup trophy might be glittering over the other side of the Atlantic, along with a fistful of Olympic gold and silver medals, but that’s not really a surprise. The United States have long been focused on their successful national team, still favourites for every tournament they enter. USA benefits from national legislation ensuring equality of funding for women’s sports in schools and colleges, meaning girls have access to great training throughout their education. What’s perhaps more concerning in the long run is that the Americans have struggled to keep a decent competitive domestic league going.
There are several reasons for this. Firstly, TV viewers prefer to watch the female national team in action rather than club league matches, so that the latter attract fewer sponsors than they rightly deserve.
Then there’s the franchising system – a key feature of all American sports which ensures sports clubs spring up where there’s a bid and appropriate funding. Because of this franchising, there’s little chance for American female soccer clubs to piggyback on existing male clubs (as they do in Europe) by sharing facilities or backroom staff, or by capitalising on a pre-existing fan base.
There’s an enormously strong loyalty felt by the USA’s national team players towards their domestic league. Paradoxically, this perhaps has a negative long-term effect since, as a rule, players choose not to gain experience playing abroad. This is where their European counterparts are at an advantage.
American midfielder Alex Morgan is a notable exception. She recently joined French club Olympique Lyonnais Feminin, stressing how the better European facilities, teammates and league competition would improve her all-round game in a way she didn’t believe could be possible back home. But her contract is for just half a season, and she will soon be back with Orlando Pride for the National Women’s Soccer League [NWSL].
The NWSL does have some advantages over the European leagues, however. Its draft system, for example, can prove a real attraction for players since it ensures an even distribution of fresh college graduate talent across the teams, and it imposes a salary cap which makes sure that the big stars aren’t all snapped up by one
“I think it’s important that the leagues are competitive and talent is distributed evenly,” says striker Natasha Dowie, now playing for the Boston Breakers, and twice a league champion in England with Liverpool LFC. “It makes for more entertaining and evenly contested games for fans, and better quality games as well, for media interest, which is what the women’s game needs to help it grow more and gain greater respect worldwide.”
American clubs may be tested on a global scale sooner than they think since FIFA are now making noises about a women’s world club championship for soccer. It may be some years in the planning, but new FIFA president Gianni Andantino’s regime has already made great strides towards promoting the women’s game.
As a rule, American players choose not to gain experience playing abroad.
This is where their European counterparts are at an advantage.
Moya Dodd, a former soccer player and now member of FIFA’s executive committee, is a fan of this new plan. “Currently we see some great women’s soccer, but not often enough,” she says. “Having high-level club competitions internationally would be a real shot in the arm for the women’s game, because if that could be held annually, it would provide a FIFA-hosted showcase for the elite of the women’s game. FIFA has a brand, it has distribution partners, and it has an operational competitions platform that could be a great showcase for women’s club soccer.”
With their strength in depth and the increased investment across leagues, European teams would likely dominate a new world club championship over American opposition, with the likes of Manchester City WFC, FL Wolfsburg, Paris Saint-Germain Feminines and Olympique Lyonnais Feminin leading the charge.
But American soccer journalist Beau Dure advises caution. “The top European teams are surely at the same level or ahead of the top American NWSL teams. But since the NWSL has that American-style parity built in, its bottom teams are far ahead of the typical mid-table European teams.”
Dure believes the leading American clubs would launch a serious challenge over the Europeans. But just how serious? “I’d still bet on Olympique Lyonnais,” he says. His answer proves which side of the Atlantic is in the ascendancy.
Alex Morgan plays at Orlando Pride and Olympique Lyonnais Feminin. Both team stadia are designed by Populous.