Lyon’s Women Defend the Past in a Changing Champions League

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They have gone, one by one, not so much swept aside as barged out of the way. Umea, the Swedish team that first brought Marta to Europe, the superpower that appeared in the first three finals of what would become the women’s Champions League, ran first into financial ruin and then, as night follows day, sporting disrepair.

The same thing happened to the next Swedish team to reach the final, Djurgarden/Alvsjo — absent from Europe since 2006, relegated in 2012. A fate even worse befell Tyreso, which was declared bankrupt just a few weeks after reaching the Champions League final in 2014.

The pattern holds outside Sweden. Those early years of the tournament were dominated by two German clubs: FFC Frankfurt and Turbine Potsdam. Together they earned 10 appearances in Champions League finals, half of them ending in victories. Potsdam has not competed in Europe at all since 2014. Frankfurt will return next season, after an eight-year hiatus.

It will do so, though, with a slightly changed identity: In 2020, it announced a merger with Eintracht Frankfurt, the men’s Bundesliga team. Potsdam has done something similar; the same year, it entered into a “cooperation agreement” with Hertha Berlin, its nearest major men’s team.

That, after all, seemed to be the only way to survive in the new landscape into which women’s soccer has been transported in the last decade or so.

The sudden influx of investment from the major players in the men’s game — Bayern Munich and Chelsea and Juventus and Paris St.-Germain and Manchester City the rest — has brought tremendous benefits to women’s soccer in Europe. It has raised salaries and lifted conditions. It has improved the spectacle and the standard.

It has, without question, helped to drive the rapid increase in both interest and exposure that has led, for example, to the streaming service DAZN’s coverage of this season’s Champions League, which will conclude on Saturday with Barcelona’s showdown with Olympique Lyonnais. This year’s games have attracted about 56 million views, and a string of record attendances has been set over the last couple of years.

But the cost of that new money’s arrival has been, to some extent, to separate women’s soccer from its past, and to do so at breakneck speed. Some of the teams that carried the flag for the sport for so long were left behind seemingly overnight, unable to compete with rivals bankrolled by the impossible wealth of the men’s game.

The assumption, for a long time, ran that the same thing would happen to the team that represented the apex of the early modern period of women’s soccer. Olympique Lyonnais was, for a little over a decade, untouchable in the Champions League. In 11 years, it contested nine finals. It won seven of them, including five in a row between 2015 and 2020.

Its dominance created a self-perpetuating winning culture, and made it a magnet for the world’s finest players, all drawn to a club where training was regularly considered more of a challenge than actual competitive games. It was when facing your teammates, after all, that you were pitting yourself against the best talent on the planet.

Lyon had the backing of a men’s team, of course, but a middle-of-the-road one — a regional power, rather than a continental one. Even Lyon, it seemed, would prove powerless once Barcelona, Real Madrid and the rest made their presence felt.

Last season, that is precisely what appeared to happen. For the first time in 14 years, Lyon failed to win the French title; that honor went, instead, to P.S.G. The Champions League trophy ended up at Barcelona, part of a treble achieved with the same sort of dominance that had for so long been Lyon’s calling card. Lyon seemed to have been dislodged from its perch in the blink of an eye.

Ada Hegerberg, the team’s striker, watched it happen from afar; she missed the whole of last season’s campaign with injury. She noted, too, how quickly women’s soccer seemed to move, how fast the world could change. Barcelona now was the team held up as the game’s standard-bearer. The Women’s Super League, England’s highest division, was now regarded as the strongest championship. Lyon’s achievements, its pre-eminence, seemed to Hegerberg to have been eclipsed and, on some level, forgotten.

That conclusion may have been, on reflection, premature. Lyon is on track to regain its French title; it has not lost a game all season, and has only conceded eight goals. More important, with Hegerberg restored to the side, it has returned to the Champions League final. Barcelona, the team it still regards as the pretender to its throne, is its opponent in Turin on Saturday.

Lyon will go into the game as an outsider, more or less, though it is harder to compare the relative merits of teams in the women’s game than it is in the men’s. The fact that so many games — especially away from England — are not televised has a warping effect on how players, and teams, are regarded, as Caroline Graham Hansen, Hegerberg’s compatriot for Norway but rival this weekend, pointed out earlier this year.

It would be of enormous benefit to the women’s game, of course, for that situation to be amended, for its constituent clubs and their stars to be granted more airtime. It is a minor solace, but a solace nonetheless, that it does lend these sorts of games an element of mystery that is sorely lacking from the men’s game. Lyon and Barcelona are both dominant in their domestic leagues, but it is difficult to know what that dominance means in relation to each other.

Barcelona’s status as defending champion, of course, is ample reason to believe it possesses the edge. That Lyon can already be considered an outsider, no matter how marginal, is proof enough of how much the landscape has shifted in the space of little more than a year.

It is also, though, heartening. Lyon was accruing some of the world’s best players when Barcelona’s women’s team was still training in the evening, after the club’s various men’s teams had gone home. Lyon was paying its stars handsome salaries while the members of Barcelona’s squad were still working second jobs.

It was an early adopter, a pioneer, and that foresight allowed it to occupy a particular place in the history of women’s soccer. Lyon was the sport’s first superteam; it provided, in many ways, the model that many of those that have tried to strip it of its primacy have attempted to mimic.

It is an emissary of a different era, a thread that roots this new iteration of women’s soccer in a past that, though it seems distant, is very recent still. Lyon’s first Champions League final was against Turbine Potsdam, a famous name reduced to a remnant of a prior age. And yet Lyon is still here, still standing, still refusing to be barged out of the way.

Two things are equally, startlingly apparent about the seminal agreement between U.S. Soccer and the unions representing its men’s and women’s teams over equal pay. One is that it is, without question, a commendable conclusion. The other is that it really should not have taken six years to sort out.

Certainly, at the heart of what was without doubt a complex negotiation is a very simple premise: The amount that men’s and women’s players are paid to represent their country in an individual game should be the same. They are, in a very real and obvious way, doing exactly the same job. Their match pay should reflect that.

(It is also the case — and we have to acknowledge a European perspective here — that U.S. Soccer pays far above market rate to everyone who represents its national teams; if there is still a strong case for that being at least an explicable policy for the women’s team, there is absolutely no reason to do it for the men.)

More thorny, of course, was the issue of how to overcome the imbalance in the prize money handed out for competing, and succeeding, in the World Cup. The men’s tournament is far more lucrative to national federations: Its prize pool is an order of magnitude larger. The solution, there, is one as elegant as it is logical: Gather all the money together and split it equally.

“No other country has ever done this,” said Cindy Parlow Cone, the U.S. Soccer president.

It is, though, a model that could be adopted elsewhere to smooth out the vast imbalance in the prize pools for both tournaments. Nobody else is going to do it, after all. Gianni Infantino might have promised, in 2019, that he was going to double the prize pool for the women’s competition to $60 million. But the FIFA president has spent the last few years focusing instead on launching cup competitions that never happen and doing what he can to ruin the men’s World Cup.

U.S. Soccer can take great pride in the fact that it has carved a path for other nations to follow, with the honorable exceptions of the Netherlands, Australia and Norway, all of whom have already moved (or pledged to move) to equalize rates of match pay. The pressure must now be placed on FIFA to make sure that the shared pot is as large as it might be. It does not need “all of that money sitting in Swiss bank accounts,” as Infantino himself once said. It is time he lived up to his word.

Stefano Pioli should not, really, have been at A.C. Milan long enough to see this happen. He was supposed to be relieved of his duties in the spring of 2020; the club had hatched a plan to hand control of not only its first team, but also much of its structure to Ralf Rangnick — then still overseeing the Red Bull network of clubs — in the hope that he might drag Milan back to the game’s cutting edge.

And then, when soccer resumed after the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic, Milan was transformed. The club broke the news to Rangnick that it did not feel it could part ways with Pioli. Within a year, the Italian had taken a young, inchoate Milan team back into the Champions League. Now, he is one point from delivering its first Serie A title since 2011.

There is just one final hurdle to clear. Milan is two points clear of its city rival, Internazionale, with a single weekend of games to play: Milan at Sassuolo, Inter at home to Sampdoria. A draw will be enough for Milan to claim a reasonably unlikely championship, thanks to its better record in games between the contenders.

That it has exceeded preseason hopes of no higher than a top-four finish is testament not only to the astute, effective team Pioli has built on a relative shoestring — Elliott Management, the hedge fund that owns the team, runs a tight ship — but to that decision, two years ago, that a rest was as good as a change.

Appointing Rangnick would have been a bold, brave step for an Italian team. More revolutionary still, perhaps, was accepting that success takes time, and patience. The title, this weekend, would be fitting reward.

I hope you all enjoyed the unexpected treat of a cameo appearance from the recently converted Trabzonspor enthusiast Tariq Panja last week, filling in for me as I attempted to corral an overstimulated 4-year-old and a poorly-trained cocker spaniel — those adjectives should maybe go the other way around — around a series of woodland walks.

That absence means there are two weeks of emails to address, largely on subjects that all of you will have forgotten. So we will start simple, by acknowledging an error. I wrongly attributed a joke about Chelsea being owned by Karim Benzema to the daughter of one Bob Marx. There is no Bob Marx. Well, there probably are lots of Bob Marxes, but this was Brian Marx, and he deserves the credit. Or his daughter does, anyway.

Javier Cortés’s assessment of American fandom, meanwhile, has attracted no little feedback. “As a former fan of an N.F.L. team that up and moved from my city, I would suggest that is exactly when allegiances should end,” wrote Michael James. “No loyalty to me and the fan base by the team means no love back.” Fred Dingledy was even more succinct: “In large part, it’s a matter of teams receiving the loyalty they give.”

Dan Lebiednik pointed out that “abandoning your team when they leave a city isn’t unique” to the United States. “England has its own example: A.F.C. Wimbledon, which was recreated by fans after their own team was moved to Milton Keynes.” This is true: Very few fans followed the new team after it left south London.

The difference, I guess, is that a couple of decades on, the reformed side has been allowed to progress through the pyramid sufficiently that it has spent a considerable amount of time in the same division as its hated half brother.

Mitch Stein, on the other hand, feels the lot of the fan is a little more universal. “I know some people who have moved to a new city and taken that city’s teams as their own; I can think of only one or two instances in which a loyal fan has dropped his or her team completely,” he wrote. “There are many people, like myself, who have the misfortune of having picked perennially horrible teams in their youth, and stick with them to the bitter end.”

And on a note so unrelated that I cannot think of a segue, Diego Paz is so enthralled by the end of the club season that he is thinking about the World Cup. “I think there are three factors that could make it better than previous tournaments,” he wrote. “The timing means the players will be less tired and prone to injury. It will come after an unusually quiet summer. And, for all the negatives about Qatar, there will be no long distance travel or drastic weather changes.”

These are all true: From a purely sporting point of view, the World Cup may well prove to be a vintage one. (We have, of course, covered the cons, and how we might respond to them, previously.) I do worry about the impact on the rest of next season, though: It will start with players desperate to avoid injury, and conclude when everyone is running on fumes.