Post-World Cup Peak, Champions League Reboots Women’s Soccer
GENEVA (AP) — As dominant as the United States in the Women's World Cup, Lyon began the Champions League this week with the brightest ever spotlight on women's soccer in Europe.
Four-time defending champion Lyon fields a stellar lineup of players now better known after a tournament that ended at Lyon's home stadium in July with another U.S. world title.
Lyon's 9-0 win at Russia's Ryazan on Wednesday, in a round of 32 first-leg game, did not quite match the Americans' World Cup-opening 13-0 rout of Thailand.
Wolfsburg, the European champion in 2013 and '14, got closer by winning 10-0 at Mitrovica, the first team from Kosovo to advance though qualifying into a men's or women's Champions League.
The champions of Kosovo, Albania and Iceland — nations that might never play in a men's Champions League group stage — show how the women have a wider base: 21 nations are represented against 16 in the men's version kicking off next week.
The 32-team knockout bracket is also more traditional. It was abandoned in 1992 when the men's European Cup was rebranded as the Champions League.
Change is coming. And fast, as elite men's clubs invest more to seek quick success in the women's game.
A group stage, possibly of 16 teams, could soon be introduced by UEFA for the 2021-22 season. The two-team quota per country is set to become three.
That's good news for Manchester United, which belatedly fielded a women's team last year, and Real Madrid, which is currently creating a team in its name.
"We must ... bring women's football to the next level," Andrea Agnelli, the influential Juventus president told members of the European Club Association on Monday.
The Juventus women's team — formed only in 2017 — made a Champions League debut on Wednesday, and lost the home leg 2-0 to Barcelona, the beaten finalist last season.
Here's a look at the UEFA Women's Champions League:
With 13 French league titles in a row, and crowned European champion six times this decade, Lyon is among the most dominant teams in all of sport. Its annual budget is around 8 million euros ($8.9 million).
Lyon is anchored in defense by tall captain Wendie Renard and the newly honored UEFA best player in Europe, England left back Lucy Bronze.
The goals flow from Ballon d'Or winner Ada Hegerberg who, like Renard, scored three in Russia this week. Hegerberg's refusal to play for Norway at the World Cup in a long dispute with the national federation was part of a strong narrative of women's soccer seeking greater respect.
There is no American star in the squad. Alex Morgan got a Champions League winner's medal in 2017 while on loan in France, and Megan Rapinoe was in Lyon's 2013 runner-up team.
The Juventus vs. Barcelona and Fiorentina vs. Arsenal games this week contrasted with a Chertanovo vs. Glasgow City pairing unique to women's soccer.
The round of 32 features champions from the top 12 domestic leagues and runners-up in the top 10 who qualified directly.
National champions across the rest of Europe, plus second-place teams from leagues Nos. 11 and 12, entered qualifying groups to decide the other 10 places.
The broader entry system gave Vllaznia, Breioablik and Mitrovica places. Iceland's Breioablik beat Sparta Prague 3-2 this week.
Some team names may be unfamiliar but show how the women's game developed in different ways across Europe.
Fortuna Hjørring from Denmark formed more than 50 years ago as an independent women's club. It was the 2003 beaten finalist in what was then the UEFA Women's Cup.
Chertanovo, a Champions League debutant, is a state-backed Moscow sports academy dating to the 1970s.
Glasgow City is 21 years old, and stands apart from the historic rivalry of Celtic and Rangers in the city.
UEFA wants the Women's Champions League to have a separate identity from the men.
Last season, the final was played at the weekend in its own city. From 2010-18, the final was a midweek warmup act for the men's Saturday final, played in a smaller venue in the same city.
The next women's final is on May 24 in Vienna. The men play on May 30 in Istanbul.
Visa is the headline sponsor of European women's soccer through 2025. That balances Mastercard backing the men's Champions League since 1994.
Nike is designing match balls uniquely for UEFA women's competitions through the 2021 European Championship. Adidas supplies UEFA's men's competitions.
Still, no women's club is getting rich yet.
The Women's Champions League prize fund is 0.25% of the men's equivalent — just under 5 million euros ($5.5 million) compared to almost 2 billion euros ($2.2 billion).
Each women's team gets 70,000 euros ($77,000) from UEFA for the round of 32 and typically pays its own travel and hotel costs.
The title winner next May can count on total prize money of 460,000 euros ($506,000) from UEFA.
Viewers who tuned in for the Women's World Cup must search hard to watch these games.
UEFA says broadcast rights belong to the home teams. Its own online streaming service uefa.tv does not have a Women's Champions League section.
British broadcaster BT Sport is committed to England's Women's Super League but did not screen live Champions League games of Arsenal and Manchester City this week.
Lyon screens live games on the club website, which has a monthly subscription of about $2.