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How Barcelona rose to challenge Lyon dominance

Sebastian Saam
May 19, 2022

Lyon dominated women's football in Europe for an entire decade. However, this year's Champions League final against Barcelona could mark a changing of the guard, one the Catalans have long prepared for.

Barca women celebrate a goal
Barcelona set a record for attendance at a women's game when they hosted Real Madrid in MarchImage: Eric Alonso/Getty Images

How FC Barcelona Femení became the best team in Europe

It promises to be more than just a game for the biggest title in European women's football: the final of this season's revamped Women's Champions League between Lyon and Barcelona could also signal a changing of the guard.

For most of the past decade, the French club have been Europe's undisputed top team, winning the Champions League almost at will. But since 2020, 'Barca Femení' have won title after title, most recently the Spanish championship. And: the Catalans are the current Champions League title holders. 

Final defeat a catalyst  

One of the turning points was the last meeting between the two teams, in the 2019 Champions League final, which Lyon won 4-1 

"The French women shot over the field like airplanes," historian Manuel Tomas Belenguer, who has written books on the Barcelona team, told DW.

"After the game, Barca players and support staff still got together on the pitch and vowed to go all the way at this level. And that was followed by a real explosion." 

What Belenguer means is that the team is now unrivaled in Spain. They won all 30 of their Spanish women's league games in the 2021-22 season. And the team has strolled through the Champions League, suffering just one, inconsequential defeat away to Wolfsburg in their second semifinal leg. 

There is now a lot of hype. A total of 91,553 spectators turned up to the Camp Nou for the second leg of their Champions League quarterfinal tie against archrivals Real Madrid – setting a world record for attendance for a women's football match.  A few weeks later they set a new record at the first leg of their semifinals against Wolfsburg.

Caroline Graham Hansen scores Barca's fifth goal past Sofie Svava and Misa of Real Madrid
Caroline Graham Hansen scored Barca's fifth goal as they trounced Real 5-2 in the second legImage: Eric Alonso/Getty Images

Just 20 years before that, in 2002, the women's division of Barcelona was not even an official part of the club. 

"Society was not ready. Underlying this was the misogynistic notion that football was only for men," said Belenguer, who has closely followed the team's development.  

As late as 2002, the female players didn't have the benefit of professional training conditions, being forced to share pitches with rugby teams from the suburbs of Barcelona. It wasn't until the beginning of the 2010s that the club's management started to take women's football more seriously and improved their infrastructure. In 2012, Barcelona won their first domestic championship. 

Golden era for Lyon's men 

By this time, though, Lyon were already serial champions of France. The club in the country's third-largest city only set up its women's division in 2004, but Lyon were determined right from the start to invest what it took to make it a success. This was a time when Lyon's men were experiencing a golden era and winning seven consecutive French championship titles. 

Barcelona's women's program, on the other hand, wasn't professionalized until 2015, when they started to work in a similar way to how Lyon were doing things. But they wanted to stand out from the crowd, not simply seeking to buy success. 

"We didn't want to buy the best players in the world, but rather to strengthen the team's regional identity through continuous work with young talent," said Barcelona sporting director Markel Zubizarreta. So, it was with a team essentially made up of Catalan players that Barcelona launched their ascent to the top of European women's football. 

In 2016-17, Barcelona reached the semifinals of the Champions League for the first time, but in the end, the title went to Lyon. The French women won the competition with a team of stars that sounded like a world 11: Alex Morgan, Ada Hegerberg, Dzsenifer Marozsán, Eugenie Le Sommer. The best of the best. 

Barcelona, on the other hand, maintained their strong regional identity, making it to the Champions League final in 2019, but this time falling to Lyon's international star ensemble. 

Alexia Putellas
Alexia Putellas won the 2021 Balon d'Or as the world's best women's playerImage: David Ramirez/ZUMA Wire/IMAGO

Working towards this moment

If Barcelona defend their title in the final in Turin on Saturday, this could just usher in a new period of domination for the club — making the Catalans the new Lyon. 

The team, with important pillars such as Ballon d'Or winner Alexia Putellas, have been working towards this moment for many years. Putellas, who grew up on the outskirts of Barcelona, embodies everything the club stands for and serves as a role model for young girls starting out in football. 

However, to get where they now find themselves, the club have had to change their approach slightly. Since 2017, sporting director Zubizarreta has also resorted to bringing in the odd experienced player from abroad, like Fridolina Rolfö. The 28-year-old Swede senses that her team means a lot to the people of the region. 

"They are interested in us; you can tell by the atmosphere in the city. And we play an attractive brand of football," Rolfö said. 

More than 10,000 Catalan fans are expected to accompany the team to Turin – something that would mark a first for women's football in Europe. 

After qualifying for the final, the Lyon daily "Le Progres" wrote that Olympique now wanted to reclaim "their trophy." However, it's quite possible that this won't happen. If that turns out to be the case, it will spell the end to the domination of the French in European women's football.

This article was translated from German.

How FC Barcelona Femení became the best team in Europe