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The Fifa World Cup final between England and Spain on Sunday will crown the best team in women’s football; it will also showcase elite players from two domestic leagues that have become talent hubs for the game.
Almost a quarter of all players in the tournament play in England’s WSL and Spain’s Liga F, both of which have received increased investment since the 2019 World Cup in France, attracting broadcasters, sponsors and fans, as well as increased support from the owners of powerful men’s clubs, such as Barcelona and Chelsea.
“It is fitting that they’ve got very strong leagues,” said Christina Philippou, an academic at the University of Portsmouth. “It boils down to money coming into the game. That allows for better resources and training, and that is very attractive to athletes.”
Women’s football still struggles after decades of being overlooked by the sport’s male-dominated authorities.
The two leagues draw in revenues that look like rounding errors compared to the billions of euros and pounds generated by top men’s divisions in Spain and England. The best male players can make more money in a week than what many women’s players can command in a year.
But Tom Corbett, managing director, sponsorship at Barclays, title sponsor of the WSL, believes the comparison to the men’s game is misleading.
“It’s important to remember that women’s football is in the early stages of its development cycle,” he said. “It’s increasing every day and improving. It’s not right to compare it to the men’s game today.”
He added that victory for the Lionesses would have commercial benefits for the league, its sponsors, broadcasters and other partners. “A win would be huge but to get to the final is also a real benefit as well,” he said.
England in particular has been successful in professionalising its women’s game. The losing semi-finalists — Australia and Sweden — had nearly 20 squad members who play in the WSL, far outweighing those playing in the Spanish league.
For the first time at the women’s tournament, players from English clubs also outnumbered those from the US, which dominated the international game and won in 2019 and 2015.
Less than a year before England finished fourth in 2019, the WSL had entered a “new full-time, professional era”. Barclays has made a £30mn commitment to the women’s game from 2022-25. The competition’s £7mn-a-year media rights deal is also paying off, with Sky Sports recording a peak viewing audience of 482,000 for the 2022-23 season opener between Liverpool and Chelsea.
England’s Football Association said it is “focused on working with the leagues and the clubs to ensure its growth and development is supported, both on and off the pitch”.
In a government-backed review published in July, former England player Karen Carney said the governing body should consider finding a “strategic” investor to help with the cost burden of developing the women’s game.
In Spain, the top flight has just finished its first year as a professional league after rebranding itself as Liga F and signing a media rights deal with sports broadcaster DAZN worth around €35mn over five years.
“It’s undoubtable that the stronger and [more] developed a domestic league is, the more beneficial for the national teams,” said Beatriz Álvarez, Liga F president.
“Professionalisation, led by Liga F and its clubs, has been a crucial step for taking the women’s game in Spain to the next level,” she added.
Spain’s victories in the in the run-up to the final have dimmed — but not extinguished — memories of a turbulent period ahead of the tournament. Last September, 15 players initiated a rebellion, clashing with coach Jorge Vilda and refusing to play for the national team until management issues affecting their “emotional state and performance” were fixed. In the end, only a small number of them joined the World Cup squad.
Despite those challenges, Spain’s women are within reach of the biggest prize in the game. Liga F does not want to let the side’s progress go to waste and is developing a strategic plan to strengthen its brand, club development, facilities, and broadcast product.
“If you didn’t have a consistent and attractive domestic competition the interest around a major event like the World Cup would disappear,” Álvarez warned. “We are working to make Liga F the place to play.”
But the success of the small number of top professional women’s leagues has also sparked comments from Fifa president Gianni Infantino about the need to grow the professional game more widely.
“Female players cannot all go to play in a few clubs in Europe or the USA,” Infantino said. “We need in the next four years to create the conditions for them to be able to play at professional level at home and this is the biggest challenge we have to take on board.”
Additional reporting by Barney Jopson