Barcelona and Real Madrid set a record attendance for women
The epicenter of women’s football worldwide is currently Spain. More precisely, it is Barcelona.
Long one of the most respected men’s teams in the world, the women have now become the sport’s juggernauts and Wednesday’s 5-2 win (and 8-3 on aggregate) against rivals Real Madrid in the quarter-finals of the UEFA Women’s Champions League was one kind of climax .
A deafening climax. An official sum of 91,553 fans performed at Barcelona’s famous Camp Nou stadium, which almost surpassed the modern record of 90,185 at the 1999 Women’s World Cup final doubled the previous record for a UWCL match. As for the world record, there are reports of 110,000 spectators at an unofficial match between Mexico and Denmark in Mexico City in 1971, and it didn’t quite reach that mark.
At least there was a lot of of people there Wednesday. Just listen to the crowd’s reaction as Barca’s centre-back María Pilar León opened the scoring in the eighth minute:
Real Madrid equalized with a penalty in the 16th minute and the Golazos started pouring in the second half. First, Real Madrid’s Claudia Zornoza beat Barca keeper Sandra Paños with a napalm chip from 40 yards:
After Barca equalized a few minutes later through Aitana Bonmatí, Clàudia Pina stuck that ice-cold dagger into the far post to give Barca the lead:
Reigning Ballon d’Or winner Alexia Putellas and Caroline Graham Hansen scored the last two goals for Barcelona, who won the Champions League for the first time last season and are set to meet either Arsenal or VFL Wolfsburg in the semi-finals at the end of April .
How did Barcelona women become so good?
As The Guardian’s Sid Lowe detailed, the catalyst for Barca’s recent development was a defeat in the 2019 Champions League final against Lyon. Lyon, the only dominant European club in women’s football for the last decade, won seven UWCL titles from 2011 to 2020, not to mention every French league title from 2007 to 2020. They beat Barca 4-1 after being within 30 minutes 4-0 up.
Barcelona knew it wasn’t at that level yet. And while a couple of big signings arrived, including Graham Hansen and Fridolina Rolfö, both from Wolfsburg, with patience and wise resource allocation, the investment really matured. Barcelona turned full professional in 2015 and operated on an annual budget of around $5 million, which is a lot for women’s football. All but a handful of first-team players are Spaniards who either graduated from the academy or signed from elsewhere in Spain and have spent years in the Barcelona system.
Former manager Lluís Cortés pushed them hard to reach the highest level, so much so that a handful of players reportedly requested his sacking last summer after beating Chelsea to finally win the Champions League. But it was all about burnout and resisting deadlock, and a few days later his top assistant Jonatan Giráldez was appointed as the new manager.
This consistency is an integral part of the collective power that Barcelona has become. They are composite. They seamlessly transition in and out of formation based on ball possession. The players understand their roles. It is an operation as efficient as in women’s club football.
This summer’s European Championships (and next summer’s World Cup) could therefore be a breakout tournament for the Spanish women. In a way, it’s not fundamentally different from the rise of the Spanish men at the turn of the last decade, as many of their core players spent every week playing alongside Barcelona.
The world is paying attention. The conditions of Wednesday’s UWCL game against Real Madrid, the women’s version of the sport’s most famous rivalry, may not be reproducible in the short term.
But it is clear that women’s football is growing exponentially. People are watching: 91,553 to be exact.