Women’s football is changing – but this time, there’s a plan.
The Champions League final. The biggest game in European football. And for the first time, a standalone women’s final is taking place in Budapest, Hungary. Lyon – victorious in every game in their league this season – battling it out against a brilliant Barcelona side. FourFourTwo embarked on a journey to experience not only one of the biggest games of the year but also to learn about UEFA’s new strategy on women’s football.
Budapest is both a beautiful and fitting city for a match of this grandeur. It’s well equipped to manage the influx of fans – plenty of whom were camped outside of our hotel as it happened to be housing the Barcelona team. It’s easy to get to and is easy enough to get around; hard for Arsenal and Chelsea fans to stomach, considering.
How to build the women's game
Before kick-off on Saturday, UEFA put on a conference on women’s football, #WePlayStrong, where we were treated to stories from players – old, new and future – journalists, and influencers who spoke frankly of their experiences within the supposedly ‘beautiful game’. One young woman told of being punched in the face by a male player, simply for playing, while ex-Holland international Rocky Hehakaija recalled an occasion where a parent of a player on an opposing team asked her to pull her pants down to prove she was a girl. There is still a festering cancer at the heart of football – an outdated mindset that needs to be educated and abolished – but UEFA claim to have a plan that will change everything.
For the first time ever, the European body has launched a dedicated women's football strategy, aiming to double the number of female players in Europe by 2024. The plan also aims to:
- Change the perception of women's football across Europe
- Double the reach and value of the UEFA Women's EURO and the UEFA Women's Champions League
- Improve player standards by reaching standard agreements for national team players and putting safeguarding policies in place in all 55 member associations
- Double female representation on all UEFA bodies
These targets are not easy wins, but having concrete and measurable aims alone is a positive step.
The game of today
Acknowledging the issues and committing money and resources is a foundation for evolution. The strategy change has been given the go-ahead by football’s big wigs; as UEFA president Aleksander Čeferin recently explained: "Women's football is the football of today. It is not the football of tomorrow. It is UEFA's duty as European football's governing body to empower the women's game. So UEFA will put significant financial investment into the sport, underlining that it dares to aim high and make European football as great as it can be.“
The atmosphere Budapest's Ferencváros Stadium was electric, with Lyon and Barcelona both eager with anticipation. Fans who have fully embraced their club’s teams; male and female. They understand that a football club is united as one; something that the majority of English fans are yet to fully buy into.
In the end, it was a comfortable victory for Lyon. Barcelona came up against an imperious side. A Lyon side that doesn’t let up. A Lyon side that holds, arguably, 11 of the best players to ever grace the women’s game. The gulf in class was clear for all to see. Ada Hegerberg and co cut through Barca time and time again, and the Catalan giants struggled to build and maintain any momentum.
The game won’t live long in the memory of Barcelona fans but it will be immortalised forever in the history of the women’s Champions League. And, for all their many, many failings, UEFA have to be credited with organising and undertaking a brilliant standalone Champions League final. The first of its kind and definitely not the last.
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