Women’s professional soccer in Europe, and some of the strides it had made, has now been victimized by the coronavirus pandemic.
All 20 Premier League clubs voted on Wednesday to return to full-contact training, reaching another benchmark to get the popular soccer circuit back to competitive games and finish the coronavirus-ravaged 2019-20 season. The teams had been back to practicing in small groups, socially distanced, for a week. And a resumption of the campaign now seems likely in the near future.
On Monday, however, it was announced that the Women’s Super League, the highest tier of the women’s game in the United Kingdom, would not be returning this season.
“Following overwhelming feedback from the clubs, the decision to bring an end to the 2019-20 season was made in the best interest of the women’s game,” the Football Association said in a statement. “Supporting the welfare of the clubs and players will continue to be our primary concern throughout this process, which also involved a robust and thorough examination of the logistical, operational and financial challenges that the game currently faces.”
Let’s talk about those “logistical, operational and financial challenges.” The first two are no different from the men’s circuit. Those challenges are less daunting than on the women’s side, in fact, since there are fewer teams and the size of the squads and support staff is smaller. As for the financial piece, the reason the WSL was forced to conclude it didn’t have the resources to finish out the season under the necessary precautionary conditions is because the FA had told it two months earlier that it wouldn’t be providing financial support.
What’s more, out of the 12 WSL teams, nine are the female counterparts of Premier League sides. The other three are tied to second-tier Championship teams. There is money there. Plenty of it. The FA has money. The clubs have money. They’re just choosing not to spend it on the women’s league.
In Spain, La Liga returned to practice last week and is cleared to resume league play as of June 8, with a likely kickoff on June 11. Yet the Primera División, the top women’s circuit, has already been shuttered for the rest of the season, even though there were nine rounds left to play – two fewer than on the men’s side. FC Barcelona Femení was announced as the champion by the Spanish federation. It had a nine-point lead, but there remained 27 points left to be played for.
In Italy, Serie A, which was the first league to shut down due to COVID-19 in early March, is slated to return to action on either June 13 or June 20, depending on the conditions. But it looked for a long while like the Serie A Femminile, its female counterpart, would be shutting down because the pandemic-related cost of resuming was several hundred thousand dollars per team.
There was an outcry, and the government eventually stepped in. The issue was that the women’s league isn’t technically professional, even though 10 of 12 teams are attached to well-established professional men’s clubs – including the powerhouses Juventus, Milan, Inter, Fiorentina and Roma. The season now looks like it will be saved and some teams have returned to training, but it was a close call.
In the four major European pro soccer nations, only Germany will resume its women’s league without significant incident. But it’s worth noting that when the Frauen-Bundesliga kicks off this Friday, it will have done so a full two weeks later than the men’s league.
It feels like the pandemic is undoing some of the recent progress in the women's game. Men’s leagues are resuming largely because it is too costly – both financially and culturally – not to. But why isn’t that true for the women?
For decades, the domestic women’s games in those four nations lagged embarrassingly far behind the men’s leagues. While Germany fielded a world power national team and was ahead of Italy, Spain and England in shoring up its domestic women’s league, it still had nothing like the institutional support the men enjoyed. Things were worse elsewhere.
Finally, after three impactful and globally popular Women’s World Cups this decade, that was beginning to change. Momentum was building. The leagues gained popularity. A game between Athletic Club and Atletico Madrid in Spain drew more than 48,000 spectators in January 2019. Two months later, a Barcelona-Atletico game pulled in almost 61,000. Last year’s Manchester derby attracted 31,000 people and Chelsea-Tottenham got 24,000. Juventus once attracted 39,000 to watch it play Fiorentina. Those were outliers, certainly, but they weren’t all driven by post-World Cup bumps, either.
The audience and interest was and is demonstrable. But for some reason, the willingness on the part of the domestic soccer federations or teams doesn’t match it. There is no good reason to play men’s professional soccer but not women’s, yet in three of Europe’s four biggest pro soccer nations, that will be the case for the rest of this season.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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