How European women’s football elite sharpened their financial elbows

When Chelsea signed the Denmark forward Pernille Harder from Wolfsburg for a record fee early last September, they were not so much parking as amassing their tanks on Lyon’s front lawn.

The then all-conquering French side had just won a fifth successive Champions League final but the pictures of Chelsea’s manager, Emma Hayes, and the club’s influential director, Marina Granovskaia, flanking Harder signalled a changing of the guard.

On Sunday Lyon, quarter-final losers against Paris Saint-Germain, will watch on television as Chelsea face a similarly ambitious Barcelona in this year’s showpiece denouement in Gothenburg.

No matter that Harder has been slightly eclipsed by her fellow forwards Sam Kerr and Fran Kirby this season and may even start on the bench in Sweden; by paying what is believed to be a world-record fee in the region of £250,000-£300,000 for a female footballer Chelsea had sharpened their financial elbows.

Although there are understood to be hundreds of players in the English Women’s Super League commanding six-figure salaries, the prevalence of short-term contracts dictates transfer fees remain relatively rare and many professionals at smaller clubs earn about £35,000 a year, sometimes considerably less.

At Chelsea, though, a significant nucleus of first-team regulars falls into the six-figure remuneration bracket with Harder and Australia’s Kerr reportedly collecting as much as £350,000 a year.

That is roughly what Lyon pay Ada Hegerberg, their Norway international and Ballon d’Or winner, and Barcelona offer the Netherlands winger Lieke Martens.

On Sunday it will be the turn of Martens, Asisat Oshoala, Caroline Graham Hansen and the rest of Barcelona Femeni’s stars to join Chelsea’s Kerr, Harder, Fran Kirby, Magdalena Eriksson and company in strutting their stuff under the game’s strobe lights.

It is important to stress that both sides’ presence in Gothenburg is largely down to the stellar management and team building of Hayes – widely acknowledged as one of the brightest stars in the coaching firmament – and her Barça counterpart Lluís Cortés but the money helps.

This year the Spanish players’ union revealed that women’s wages in their top tier averaged a modest €17,000 a year but in late 2019 Barcelona’s accounts showed Cortes’s squad alone enjoyed a budget of €3.5m a year.

Vicky Losada, Barcelona’s captain, spelt the situation out. “At our club we have salaries you can live on, not just survive on,” she said. “But in about half the teams in our league lots of the girls just about survive on what they earn.”

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It is all part of a seismic shift in the often still extremely uneven topography of the European women’s game. A decade ago when Hayes was employed by Chelsea’s owner, Roman Abramovich, Bristol City and Liverpool had just become the first WSL clubs to import players from abroad but it was Hayes who signed the league’s first real overseas star. Significantly, the arrival of the South Korea midfielder Ji So-yun from Japan’s INAC Kobe Leonessa in 2014 represented a WSL watershed.

Since then quite a bit of money has been spent by the newly crowned English champions but Ji and her manager have also put in an awful lot of hard yards. On Sunday they hope to reap their reward at the Gamla Ullevi stadium.