Women's leagues on the up

The fact that the recent Women’s Olympic Football Tournament was a roaring success, with record attendances and enthralling, high-quality matches, should have surprised no-one. Standards in the female game have, after all, consistently and continually improved over recent decades, and every Olympics and FIFA Women’s World Cup invariably succeeds in raising the bar higher still.

However, while these major tournaments never fail to live up to expectations, the challenge comes when the medals have been handed out and the players have returned home. Providing sustainable and well-supported domestic leagues has proved more difficult, and the collapse of Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) in USA in May left many doubting the viability of full-time female football.

This initial gloom was understandable. The US top flight had, after all, been the only fully professional women’s league, and attracted the vast majority of the game’s biggest stars. Nonetheless, as the dust settled, it became ever more apparent that the failure of this latest US model was not representative of the picture as a whole. Germany and Sweden continue to successfully operate stable and and partially professional leagues, and recent years have witnessed other nations – both in Europe and further afield – catching up to these traditional powerhouses.

Leading the way has been France. Lyon, in fact, have not only reached the standards set by the Germans and Swedes, but surpassed them, winning the UEFA Women’s Champions League in each of the last two seasons. The European champions’ ability to attract the likes of Lotta Schelin, and to keep French stars such as Elodie Thomis, Louisa Necib and Camille Abily, has thrown down the gauntlet to their countrywomen, and other clubs are now taking that up.

Juvisy, for example, continue to impress on a budget much smaller than their all-star rivals, while Paris Saint-Germain are adopting a similar approach to their male counterparts by snapping up high-profile foreigners in the shape of German internationals Linda Bresonik and Annike Krahn. Marseille, meanwhile, are the new kids on the block, but currently lead the Division 1 Ferminine and are undefeated after eight matches in this, their first season in the top flight.

Russia have similarly lofty ambitions, and while their national team failed to qualify for London 2012, the country’s Premier League was represented at the tournament by several top stars from Brazil, Sweden and Cameroon. As with France, one club has captured the imagination thanks to its eye-catching signing policy, with WFC Rossiyanka boasting stars from China, Japan, Mexico, Romania, Russia, South Africa, Sweden, Ukraine and USA, not to mention four members of Brazil’s Olympic squad.

Champions for the last two seasons running, Rossiyanka are spearheading the rise of Russian women’s football and are sure to be a force to reckoned with in this season’s Champions League. So too are the ambitious Swiss side FC Zurich, who – bolstered by the arrivals of former Germany internationals Inka Grings and Sonja Fuss – topped their qualifying round group having won all three games, scoring 14 goals and conceding none.

England too has cause for encouragement. The FA Women’s Super League has proved successful since its 2010 launch and a recent survey by its organisers found a huge increase in awareness and excitement since the Olympics. Almost 70 per cent of those questioned said that they would consider going to watch a live women’s game, leaving Kelly Simmons, The FA’s Head of the National Game, bullish about the future. “These results show what an amazing legacy the Olympics has created for women’s football,” she said. “We want to build on that momentum to secure ongoing passion and interest.”

While English clubs, and Arsenal Ladies in particular, have been formidable forces in European football for years, new powers are also emerging. One area well worth watching is the Low Countries, where Belgium and the Netherlands have been granted UEFA approval to unite to form a 16-team BeNe League. “As two little countries, together we will be more powerful,” said the division’s spokeswoman, Ingrid Vanherle. “All eyes are on us to see if it’s successful.”

Domestic women’s football is also beginning to thrive outside of Europe, with Australia a notable example. The W-League has now enjoyed four successful seasons, with players such as Megan Rapinoe, Rebecca Smith and Ariane Hingst ensuring that its free-to-air coverage even outrated the men’s A-League at one stage.

In Japan, meanwhile, the national team’s FIFA Women’s World Cup triumph in 2011 has resulted in bigger crowds and unprecedented commercial deals for the Nadeshiko League, allowing its teams to keep hold of stars such as Aye Miyama and the reigning FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year, Homare Sawa. The latter’s club, INAC Kobe Leonessa, is also looking abroad for stars and recently targeted an ambitious move for Abby Wambach.

It seems, however, that the big striker will be staying put for the moment, especially after it was confirmed recently that another women’s professional soccer league will kick off in USA during the spring of 2013. Everyone will, of course, wish that new division every success as it attempts to thrive where its predecessors have faltered. But as the evidence above shows, there is already plenty of life in women’s domestic football beyond America’s borders.