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Boost to women's football in Spain sparks fresh power battle

More than 60,000 people watched Atletico Madrid play Barcelona at the Wanda Metropolitano stadium in a women's La Liga game on March 17
More than 60,000 people watched Atletico Madrid play Barcelona at the Wanda Metropolitano stadium in a women's La Liga game on March 17 AFP/File
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Madrid (AFP)

Spain's domination of men's football in Europe may be over but in the women's game it leads the way after a season of unprecedented interest and swelling financial support.

Barcelona will play their first Champions League final against Lyon on Saturday, two months after a European record crowd of 60,739 watched them in a league game against Atletico Madrid at the Wanda Metropolitano.

"It was an extraordinary feeling," Atletico midfielder Angela Sosa told AFP. "Stepping out on the grass - I could never explain what that meant."

A month earlier, 48,121 attended Athletic Bilbao?s cup game against Atletico at San Mames, more people than at any of the men's games in the Basque city this season.

"It would have been unthinkable three years ago to be playing games in these huge stadiums," said Pedro Malabia, La Liga's director of women's football.

"But we think that within four or five years we can be doing this once a month or even once every two weeks."

The idea supporters might watch their women's team, in the same ground and just as often, as the men's side, remains a distant concept in most of Europe's elite football nations.

Yet Spain has stridden ahead, perhaps in part because fans support their clubs holistically, eager to cheer on the youth teams, basketball teams and, now, women's teams too.

But popularity still looked unlikely as recently as 2015, before 13 clubs joined together to form the Association of Women's Football Clubs (ACFF) and, under the charge of La Liga, began moving forward.

"The first thing we had to change was the visibility," said Malabia. "And second, we had to improve the product."

- 'Not a fad, a reality' -

Utilities firm Iberdrola signed a deal in 2016 to be the league's main sponsor while in March, Mediapro extended its contract to broadcast women's football in Spain until 2022.

Each year, La Liga Iberdrola now makes 7 million euros, 3 million from Mediapro, 2 million from Iberdrola and a further 2 million from La Liga.

"We wanted to make football available to everyone, not just men," said Elisa Yarte, Iberdrola's director of global sponsorship. "We have seen it boom and very much hope it will continue."

Television swiftly transformed the numbers. Last year, 7 million tuned in cumulatively over the season's 117 games. Halfway through the current season, that figure had already reached 5 million.

"It's not a fad, it's a reality," Jorge Vilda, coach of the women's Spanish national team, told AFP. "People are interested in women's football not just at the weekend, but every day, every week."

There is a long way to go. Real Madrid, the world's most successful club, is one of only three in La Liga not to have a women's team, along with Celta Vigo and Real Valladolid.

"It's not up to me to decide," said Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane earlier this month.

The club said its stance has not changed from what president Florentino Perez outlined to its general assembly in 2017. "We are not going to buy our place and just start signing players from different countries," Perez said. "Our idea is to do it from the base."

There is certainly a broader issue of expansion at grass-roots level where more teams, coaches and pitches need to be made available to girls.

"We need now to grow from the bottom," Spain coach Vilda said. "So the pyramid has a bigger base."

At the top, popularity has instigated a battle for power between La Liga and the ACFF, and the RFEF, the latter announcing in March controversial plans for a "new model of competition that aims to relaunch women's football".

The new format includes a 16-member elite league that would offer qualification to European club competitions.

"The brands are worried, Iberdrola is worried, TV is worried, the clubs are worried, the players are worried," La Liga's Marabia said. "When something works, don't touch it."

At stake could be the progress made and momentum gained.

"We hope the final decision is made only to help women's football," said Sosa. "To make it grow and not get stuck. Men's football is still light-years away and for all young girls, there is still a lot to do."

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