Germany rallied to save women's football – the FA should be embarrassed

Suzanne Wrack
Photograph: Lars Baron/Bongarts/Getty Images

On Monday the Women’s Super League and Championship seasons were ended by the Football Association after weeks of waiting for what had become an inevitable announcement. 

While women’s football in England has become the latest sporting casualty of Covid-19, elsewhere the situation is being used to help fuel the growth of the game. On Wednesday details of a one-month 25-game Challenge Cup tournament in the US were unveiled, scheduling women’s football as the first sport to return in the country. And on Friday the Frauen Bundesliga resumes with the league leaders, Wolfsburg, playing struggling Cologne.

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Some will deem the restart of Germany’s top women’s league too great a risk. Not just from a public health point of view, but a personal one, too. A rapid turnaround means teams will have had only one week of full training before playing competitive games. That, it is felt, is not enough time.

According to the AI data analytics company Zone7, eight players picking up injuries in the opening six men’s Bundesliga games was no accident. Men’s teams had only nine days to switch from individual training to high-intensity group work.

Even when international tournaments cut into pre-season, clubs will more often than not find 30 days to prepare their squads. When Zone7 looked at the effect changes in preseason length may have on injury risks within teams, 75% of those that had two years of data available demonstrated higher injury rates in the first half of the season when the preparation period was shorter.

Regardless of whether they should be playing competitively now, or with more time to ease players back in, the Frauen Bundesliga’s return alongside the men should be welcomed. It is also extremely embarrassing for the Football Association. 

Many point to the cultural difference and the 51% ownership model in Germany that keeps sporting hearts and interests above economic forces. But the return of women’s football and its growth is in the economic interests of clubs and leagues long term.

Additionally, just because the English game has decayed to a point where profit rules and all football outside the Premier League – men’s and women’s – is pushed aside, sacrificed supposedly for its own benefit but ultimately to protect short-term profits, does not mean we should accept it.

The Bundesliga is not a socialist paradise – clubs there have been hit financially amid this crisis, too. The Deutsche Fussbal Liga, which runs Germany’s leagues,y was said to be facing a €770m (£691m) loss should this season not be seen out. Clubs will lose €91m (£81m) in match-day revenue with games played behind closed doors – in the 2018-19 that accounted for 12.9% of their total income. Werder Bremen have been forced into taking out a loan from a state-owned bank, and last month, Kicker magazine reported 13 of the 36 top clubs faced insolvency. Yet when discussing recovery, clubs dug deep.

Bayern Munich and Dortmund helped contribute funds to aid men’s and women’s professional football in Germany following the crisis. Photograph: Federico Gambarini/EPA

Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, RB Leipzig and Bayer Leverkusen all contributed €7.5m (£6.93m) while also giving up €12.5m (£11.2m) in TV rights payments to help build a €20m solidarity fund for the whole of German professional football, benefitting men’s Bundesliga 3 clubs and those in Frauen Bundesliga (clubs with parent teams in the men’s Bundesliga and mBundesliga 2 waived their shares). The DFB, German football’s governing body, unanimously agreed that the pot should be used to cover testing and its additional costs and lost income. 

“We can only overcome this crisis together, when we act as one, because there is only one football,” the DFB president, Fritz Keller, said in a statement. “The Bundesliga clubs exemplify this cohesion in a brilliant manner with their financial support. It shows that we are fighting together for the good of our football and that we won’t give up on any club.”

In England, the question put to professional football outside the Premier League is: can you afford to resume? The answer in the case of the Women’s Super League and Women’s Championship was no. There is no solidarity fund to assist with losses, let alone to cover the costs of restarting. The notion that you should help clubs equitably rather than equally, by financially assisting struggling clubs and not those with wealthy parent operations, on the assumption that it is good for the long-term health of the game, is seen as idealistic.

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English football is crippledby conservatism, in sharp contrast to Germany, which has shown it values football beyond the elite, and the women’s game in particular.

In the US, with the new commissioner, Lisa Baird, at the helm, the NWSL could cover the costs of running the Challenge Cup in Utah through sponsorship and TV deals. P&G and Secret are sponsoring the event; CBS All Access will show the games, and they will all be made available worldwide via Twitch. The semi-finals and final are also sponsored by Budweiser, and the league has a new multi-year partnership with Verizon. 

By working with the Utah Royals owner, Dell Loy Hansen, who furloughed staff when the crisis hit, the NWSL is hosting the tournament in a state with a low Covid-19 count and Hansen is assisting with providing teams with accommodation, training facilities and competition needs. Even, according to Equalizer Soccer, allowing clubs to borrow planes to travel to the tournament. 

The NWSL players’ association has worked hard to have players’ concerns made central to planning, with contracts to be honoured even if players choose not to take part. Mothers will also be able to bring their children to games.

In Germany and the US, governing bodies are showing that if you are bold women’s football does not have to be a casualty of this crisis. Instead, it can be a pioneer.