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Champions League: Final loss highlights Wolfsburg's flaws

Kalika Mehta Reporting from Eindhoven
June 3, 2023

Wolfsburg let a two-goal lead slip as they lost the Champions League final against Spanish giants Barcelona. The defeat raises questions about where the She-Wolves stand on the landscape of women's football.

Wolfsburg's women
Wolfsburg were crushed after letting a two-goal lead slip in the Champions League final against BarcelonaImage: Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

For 45 minutes it looked as though VfL Wolfsburg were going to revive hopes of past European glories by lifting the Champions League trophy for the first time since 2014.

Striker Ewa Pajor robbed defender Lucy Bronze on the edge Barcelona's box before unleashing a strike befitting a Champions League final that beat Sandra Panos after only four minutes.

It stunned a sold-out Philips Stadium in Eindhoven, that looked and sounded like the Camp Nou had been transported from Spain to Holland, into almost silence. Save for the delighted crop of Wolfsburg fans.

When talismanic captain Alexandra Popp headed in from a Pajor cross just before half-time, the She-Wolves looked on course to be crowned the first German European champion since 2015.

But the 45 minutes that followed saw Wolfsburg put firmly in their place by Europe's best as Barcelona’s come-from-behind 3-2 win left them wondering where they fit in the pyramid having once been the trendsetters of women's football. 

Stroot banks on development over investment

In the nine years since Popp last lifted the trophy, investment has transformed the women's game but the German club has remained comparatively conservative. 

Wolfsburg head coach Tommy Stroot admitted that his team's ability to compete against the better-funded clubs was a point of pride against the Spanish giants. "Even a few years ago, we wondered how long Wolfsburg could compete," Stroot said after the match. 

"We managed to find a way to stay on that level and this final confirms that. We have players like Lena Oberdorf and others, young players taking their steps forward here and becoming world-class at Wolfsburg." 

"Barcelona had three former Wolfsburg players here, which confirms the work we are doing. The financial aspect does play a role but we know our path and we can be dangerous with our way of doing things." 

Pulling power problems

Those former players included Fridolina Rolfö, who scored the winning goal in Eindhoven. Yet, Stroot's pride betrays the exact issue Wolfsburg are battling against to remain relevant in the constantly evolving landscape of women's football.

Where other teams are willing to spend big to bring in the best players from across the world, Wolfsburg remain an elite stepping-stone club for young players and German internationals.

Domestically, primary rivals Bayern Munich signed Georgia Stanway last summer and, since reclaiming the Bundesliga title off Wolfsburg, have added Scottish international Samantha Kerr, as well as Chelsea pair Pernille Harder and Magdalena Eriksson to their ranks. 

Similarly, Barcelona's second Champions League title in three years too came off the back of a decision to pay a world-record fee for midfielder Kiera Walsh, having been swept aside 4-1 by Olympique Lyon in last year's final.

Xavi Puig, Barcelona's board member responsible for women's football, spoke of the investment and strategic approach the club were taking to ensuring the team could secure their own dynasty.

"This is a project that is growing every day and we're willing to invest," Puig said speaking to Mundo Deportivo. "When we arrived the first thing we did was work on the training ground so that the players worked on natural grass."

"We also worked very quickly with La Masia, the dream factory for boys and girls who are starting to play. Our strategy is to continue growing the academy to have the greatest sports representatives of La Masia."

Barcelona celebrate
Barcelona had to come from two goals down to be crowned European champions for a second time in three seasonsImage: Piroschka Van De Wouw/REUTERS

A place for growth but not long-term success

While splashing out is unlikely to be the knee-jerk reaction for Wolfsburg, their current path leaves little room for error amongst Europe’s elite.

The facilities and staff at the club are of the highest level, but that no longer sets them apart in the eyes of the best players in the world, who are looking elsewhere to fulfil title aspirations. 

"We have a lot of big cities to compete against to try and bring people to the club," defender Dominique Janssen admitted after the game. "I don’t think Wolfsburg is the most attractive city to be in." 

"You can see what is happening in women’s football, it's going crazy, which means we also have to step up our game. It’s difficult to know what will happen, but I really believe this club is the perfect place to try and develop at without too many distractions."

Had they held onto their two-goal lead in Eindhoven, the euphoria may have papered over the real issues. 

Wolfsburg have remained competitive at the highest level whilst sticking to their tried and tested methods, but as the gap between them and clubs like Barcelona continues to grow, their status may come under even greater threat if they don’t evolve with the times.

Edited by: James Thorogood

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