It wasn’t the first time that boisterous travelling supporters turned Turin’s Piazza San Carlo into the stage for their warm-up sing song before heading out to the Juventus Stadium.
They weren’t the first to be bussed, flown, freighted into town in the hope of seeing ribbons in their club’s colors hanging from a European trophy. They weren’t the first, and they won’t be the last, to toast that dream’s fulfilment in the bars in San Salvario, or mourn its passing in a dreary drive home on the Autostrada. But on one count they can claim to have broken new ground; they did this not to support their heroes, but their heroines.
Olympique Lyon beat reigning titleholders Barcelona in the Women's Champions League final as events in Turin once again underlined the unprecedented rise in popularity of the women's game.
"We couldn’t hear each other on the pitch from a meter away," said Player of the Match Amadine Henry. "We had to shout. We’re really happy, even though there were more Barcelona fans [than Lyon fans]. We’d rather see a full stadium than an empty one."
The return of Ada Hegerberg
The game itself was largely the story of the triumphant return of one particular superstar. Ada Hegerberg was an uncontainable threat for the Barcelona defense, always available for a pass, always a step ahead of her marker and always industrious without possession. She led the charge as the most successful team in the history of this competition recaptured their crown with the self-assurance only sovereigns exude.
"I spent two years injured, and last year if you'd said I'd be in a Champions League final, I wouldn't have believed you," Hegerberg told reporters ahead of the game, referring to the ACL injury she sustained in January 2020. Small wonder that the Norwegian superstar was savoring the occasion. "This is a huge day for women’s football, and we want to show what we're made of."
It was indeed a huge day for women’s football. Above all, it was a historic occasion on the stands. Lyon, whose domestic attendance regularly exceeds four thousand for big games, were represented in respectable numbers. But they were nonetheless vastly outdone. Barcelona brought an estimated 18,000 fans to Turin — and set a new standard for travelling support in the women's game.
Barcelona set standards off the pitch
Barca chartered planes, organized coaches, and handed out tickets to its members, who, unperturbed by the prospect of a nine-hour drive each way, or of flying to Turin and back on the same day, took up the offer in great numbers.
Their unprecedented away day support made itself felt in the stands, which roared with a rare ferocity. It also capped off a historic season, in which Barcelona Femeni twice set new attendance records in the women’s game, packing over 90,000 fans into the Camp Nou first against Real Madrid, and then again against Wolfsburg.
"I was there in the front row," Barcelona fan Luis told DW of the latter fixture. "The players signed my shirt and all that stuff, it was crazy." While filling the Camp Nou is one thing, taking a huge contingent to a foreign country is quite another, but the subsidized travel and free tickets continue to help build a bond between Femeni and the fans.
"This is how it has to be," Luis said ahead of kick-off on Saturday. A lifelong Barca supporter, he was nonetheless away from home following his team for the first time. He and a friend had arrived in the morning on a subsidized bus, one of 40 organised by the club, which would then bring them straight back to Barcelona after full-time. "The women deserve it, they’ve won everything," he told DW.
Lyon set standards on the pitch
While the Blaugrana supporters did their bit, belting out the club anthem at any and every opportunity, waving a sea of flags, and whistling with venomous disapproval at the officials, their players were unable to give them what they wanted. The game was just five minutes old when Barca suffered their first setback.
It came when Lyon’s Amandine Henry launched herself into a perfectly-timed challenge that stopped the ball dead in its tracks and brought Alexia Putellas crashing to the ground. While her opponents appealed for a free-kick, Henry simply shrugged the Ballon d’Or winner off of her back, took one touch, gazed up at goal, and fired an unstoppable arrow into the top right corner.
If no one had seen the first goal coming, the whole ground watched the second in something like slow motion. Selma Bacha’s cross hung in the air for an eternity before finding a grateful Hegerberg unmarked at the back post, and the Norwegian made the Barca back line pay for failing find their bearings. She turned provider shortly afterwards for Melvin Malard; another goal that a more attentive, aggressive defense might have prevented.
When Alexia Putellas finally fired Barcelona’s third or fourth chance home on 41 minutes, a comeback suddenly looked on the cards. The second half brought further opportunities - none more promising than when Patricia Guijarro rattled the Lyon bar from the center-circle - but Barca were too wasteful to break their opponents’ grip on the lead. They have now lost four out of four matches against Lyon, whose victory sees them claim a record-extending eighth title, their sixth in seven years. The Queens of Europe are back on the throne.
Old and new stories being written
Two players who featured on Saturday, captain Wendie Renard and substitute Eugenie Le Sommer, have lifted the trophy all eight times with Lyon. "The journalists said [we were underdogs]," Renard told reporters after the game. "We wanted to keep on writing our story and we showed what we could do and we showed it well because we’re leaving with the trophy."
The first final they won, a decade ago in Munich, was watched by 50,000 spectators, a record for a Champions League final that still hasn’t been broken; 32,257 were inside the Juventus Stadium, putting tonight’s spectacle in second place.One gets the feeling that the local uptake was less than enthusiastic this time around. UEFA’s on-the-ground advertising campaign leaves a lot to be desired, and the fact that Turin hosted the Eurovision song contest just a week ago clearly hasn’t helped on the hype front.
But while a few seats stayed empty, the travelling supporters of both of Saturday’s finalists nonetheless raised the bar. Rarely do fans in this sport sacrifice as much to be here as those who followed their teams to Turin. The icing on the cake of a season of unprecedented growth, Saturday’s Champions League final was yet another historic high watermark in support for the women’s game.
Edited by: James Thorogood
Author Tom Gennoy (Turin)
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