If it feels like the tide is turning just a bit in women's soccer in Europe, it's because Sunday's UEFA Women's Champions League final matchup is indicative of just that.
A competition long dominated by German and French clubs—and Lyon in particular for the better part of the last decade—will now come down to English and Spanish sides that both represent the change in the game that has come with greater investment.
Chelsea and Barcelona will vie for Europe's top women's trophy in Sweden, venturing into generally uncharted waters. There's been only one English winner (Arsenal, 2007) and one Spanish finalist (Barcelona, '19) in the history of the Women's Champions League, and yet the approaches that the two clubs have taken over the last five years have put them in position not just to contend for honors this season but for years to come.
On one side there's Chelsea, which is gunning for a quadruple after retaining its FA WSL title, winning England's League Cup and remaining alive in the FA Cup. Coached by Emma Hayes, who was an assistant on that Arsenal side that became European champion and wound up doing the quadruple, Chelsea lured the likes of attacking stars Sam Kerr (from the Chicago Red Stars) and Pernille Harder (from Wolfsburg) to become a juggernaut.
Barcelona, meanwhile, is going for a treble after going unscathed in its domestic league and reaching the semifinals of the Copa de la Reina, which will take place later this month. Its roster is predominantly Spanish-based, with national team stalwarts like Jenni Hermoso and Vicky Losada, but stars like Netherlands' Lieke Martens, Nigeria's Asisat Oshoala and Norway's Caroline Graham Hansen have brought a world-class element to Lluís Cortés's side over the last few years.
"Everyone is investing a lot more in women's football, and it's really nice to see," Martens said this week. "We're always on the pitch, we're working our ass off. We really deserve that platform as well."
Investment, clearly, is not a priority across the board just yet. The imbalance in Spain is testament to that, as Barcelona turned in rookie-setting video game numbers by winning all 26 La Liga Femenina games it played, outscoring opponents 128–5. But it's been tested by the likes of bigger-spending sides like Man City and PSG in the Champions League and excelled en route to the final.
"The league has been quite easy this year," Martens said. "We knew that those games in the Champions League we have to lift our level more and more. ... Against Chelsea we have to reach our best level."
It's Barcelona's second Champions League final in the last three seasons, with the 4–1 defeat to Lyon in 2019 serving more as a learning experience more than anything else. The match was 4–0 within 30 minutes, and Barcelona never stood a chance. Times have changed.
"From there we started a new process, and I think from there we know what we really wanted," Martens said, crediting the defeat for helping shape Barcelona's outlook. "It's a really big dream for all of us, and the club invested a lot in women's football. It really feels like it can be our year.
"In the final in 2019 ... we were a bit scared in the beginning and they took over. We have learned a lot from then. Now it's a new opportunity. Now I don't want the silver medal; I want the gold one."
Gold could become a theme this year for Martens, the 2017 winner of the Best FIFA Women's Player award. The Netherlands, the 2019 Women's World Cup runner-up, will be among the top contenders at the Olympics this summer, and a club treble and Olympic gold would position Martens for more top individual honors.
Kerr is another Olympic-bound star challenging for individual hardware. After leaving the Chicago Red Stars and NWSL for Chelsea, she's taken her game to another level. She won the FA WSL's Golden Boot with 21 goals to add to her NWSL Golden Boots as the league's top scorer from 2017–19, but this one is just a bit different for her.
“This probably means the most to me out of all my Golden Boots,” Kerr said after Chelsea polished off its WSL title. “I feel like a lot of people said I had to come to Europe to prove myself and here it is.”
The same could be said for Chelsea, which has proven its chops in European competition. After reaching the Champions League semifinals in 2017–18 and '18–19, there's another level to its achievement. Hayes, who has some U.S. roots after coaching semipro, college and WPS teams in the U.S., is widely credited for shaping the club's trajectory.
“She makes us used to having the pressure so whenever the moments come where it’s a pressured game, it’s not that big of a deal for us because we deal with that pressure every day,” Chelsea captain and Swedish international Magdalena Eriksson told the Associated Press. “She’s taken Chelsea to this point. She’s pushed us every year.”
Hayes has been with Chelsea since 2012, but it's been the last five years when the investment and results have taken hold with the WSL title, Chelsea's fourth since '15. Chelsea became the first club to have its men's and women's teams reach the Champions League final in the same season, and while there's no apples-to-apples comparison for the $300 million summer spending spree and midseason manager change that helped craft the success on the men's side, the emphasis on growing the women's arm has been clear.
That's something both finalists have in common. The days of Lyon being an automatic shoo-in for the final are no longer, no matter how many world-class stars find their way to the club. There's an increase in investment elsewhere, and if that trajectory continues, a more diverse group of Women's Champions League finalists should follow. This season is evidence of that.
"Lyon has a really good team, but it’s really good that other teams are in the final," Martens told The New York Times. "It’s really exciting to see other teams have also improved a lot. They have invested in women's football, and it’s paying off."
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