Last week, representatives of the twelve Division 1 Feminine clubs met for two days of discussion of the challenges facing women’s football in France, with the intention that the FFF publishes a full policy paper in June in collaboration with the Institut de Formation du Football. This was “un état des lieux“, according to executive committee member Brigitte Henriques, looking at budgets, sponsorship opportunities, pay structure, and player development with a view to improving the overall situation of the women’s game.
On Saturday, away from the seminar room and the flipchart, it was first v second on the field. Having lost 1-0 in the home tie, PSG went to the Stade Gerland in the hope of clawing the first points of the season off Lyon, but it was not to be. PSG started reasonably well, and Tobin Heath in particular looked a very good acquisition as she broke down the left, but Linda Bresonik was very quiet, and the midfield belonged to OL. Their Swedish striker Lotta Schelin put her finger on it, speaking before the match:
“When we met in the first half of the season, it was a tight game; they were very solid. We’ll have to play well to beat them. But we know what we’re capable of when we’re at 100%. At Gerland, things will be different; it’s our turf. The injury to Annike Krahn could be tough for them; she’s the one who usually marshals the defence, so it’s actually pretty good news for us.”
That turned out to be pretty accurate; Laure Boulleau is a fine left-back but the central pairing looked shaky, and only some fine saves from Veronique Pons kept the score to a reasonably respectable 3-0 defeat. PSG did make some chances early on, but Laura Georges and Wendie Renard in defence for OL were a solid shield in front of Sarah Bouhaddi, and the Lyon keeper had little to do in the closing stages.
One issue that might be difficult for the FFF to address is the perennial one for women’s football – the gulf in class between the best teams and the rest. This affects both domestic leagues, European club competition, and international football, and is characterised in France with the distinction between the ‘big four’ (Lyon, PSG, Juvisy, and Montpellier) and the chasing pack. The result is that games between the big guns and the rest are often terribly one-sided affairs (Lyon have scored double figures three times so far in the league, and twice in the cup), and so the ‘grands chocs’ between them are where titles are won and lost.
Despite only drawing their first game against Guingamp, PSG are second in the table with 58 points from 17 matches (it’s 4 for a win, 2 for a draw, 1 for showing up, in Division 1); their only other points dropped were a draw at Mosson, and now two losses to Lyon. The capital city club’s owners are splashing the cash and making impressive signings in their women’s team as well as in the men’s – last summer they brought in Shirley Cruz Trana from OL, Kheira Hamrouai from St Etienne, and a number of internationals; Bresonik and Krahn from Germany, Kosovare Asllani from Sweden, and Lindsey Horan from the US. In January, they picked up another US international, Heath, until the end of the season, mimicking OL’s recruitment of Megan Rapinoe; the Americans want playing time before the reconstituted US Women’s League kicks off in the summer. OL also picked up World Cup winner Shinobu Ohno on an 18-month deal.
PSG are therefore in strong position to get a Champion’s League place next season, as the top two go through. Juvisy, in the quarter finals of the current edition, are fourth on 50 points, only one point behind Montpellier – their clash in game 20 will decide third place, with Juvisy having the advantage as they have already banked their two losses to OL. Third is nowhere, however, so Juvisy will also be looking to their match against PSG in game 21 – but even if they win all their remaining games, they will finish on 74, and PSG on 75 unless they also slip up elsewhere; the likeliest looking fixture for that would be in the last game, against 5th-placed Guingamp, but you wouldn’t bet on that lightning striking twice.
So…. I’m trying not to talk about Lyon – we’ve done that recently - but it’s really, really hard not to. They’re not just unbeaten, they’re on a perfect record – 16 wins from 16 in the League, 4 from 4 in the CL, 2 from 2 in the Cup. The numbers are frightening – scored 95, conceded 5. Throw in the Cup and CL and they’ve scored 150 goals this season in 21 games – and conceded 5. Highest score? 16-0. Poor Woissy. Highest scorer? Lotta Schelin, with 20 goals in 13 league matches. They average over six goals a game, won the treble last year, and look a decent bet to retain their CL crown. I shared some of those stats on the twitter feed during the match and the responses ranged from d’extraterrestre to tout simplement monstrueux, which don’t really need translation, but if they do – woof.
Lyon’s starting eleven featured 7 French and 3 foreign internationals – and there are rumours that Amandine Henry, who scored the third from the spot after Schelin bagged a brace, will soon also get a call-up. PSG’s featured three Bleues – Boulleau, Delannoy and Houara – but only Boulleau is a regular, and OL’s substitutions showed their amazing strength in depth; as well as Ohno, Eugenie Le Sommer and Sandrine Bussaglia were brought on.
There’s another chance to see many of these players in the next week as Les Bleues have two friendly matches with Brazil, first on Wednesday, then on Saturday, which will be televised on Direct 8. Later in the month, Lyon and Juvisy both face Swedish opposition in the CL Quarter Finals, Malmo and Goteborg respectively, playing for the chance to meet each other at the next stage (Arsenal Ladies may feel slightly relieved they are on the other side of the draw). These matches will be shown on France 4 / Eurosport, who are also showing selected league games throughout the season.
The FFF’s plan du feminisation is to be supported for promoting development throughout the women’s game, but as well as the structural issues being addressed with that, there are significant footballing reasons that will prevent a levelling of the league to be more competitive; while PSG have a good track record to which significant financial resources have been added, Lyon’s epic results in the past few years mean that they have the power to attract and keep the best players, which legacy will be – rightly – difficult to undo. Saturday night was a chance to see if PSG could challenge in Division 1 as in Ligue 1, but they will have to wait at least another year for a chance at domestic honours; the priority must be holding on to second spot and getting back into the Champions League (they reached the last 16 in the 2011/12 edition, losing to finalists FFC Frankfurt). For Lyon, the target, almost bewilderingly, will be to replicate last season’s treble, and finish the league with 88 points; they have achieved so much, perfection may be the only thing that remains.