By Richard Martin
BARCELONA (Reuters) – Barcelona are making their first appearance in the women’s Champions League final against holders Olympique Lyonnais on Saturday but landing a maiden European title is just one part of the club’s grand ambitions in the booming women’s game.
The Spanish side are preparing to launch a female franchise in the United States and are looking into building a residence for female players in the mould of their famous La Masia academy.
“Reaching the final is not something exceptional but something we have been working very hard to do,” Barca’s vice-president Jordi Mestre told Reuters in an interview.
“We have made spectacular progress in the last few years and we’re going to keep going down this path as we believe we can go very far in women’s football.”
Saturday’s sold-out match at the 22,000-capacity Groupama Arena is the first time the women’s Champions League final is being held in a separate city to the men’s showpiece, which Mestre called “a wise move”.
“This week the women are the protagonists, all the media and the fans are focused on this final alone,” he added.
Women’s football is proving particularly popular in Spain where the top division is sponsored by energy company Iberdrola and two games are broadcast per week on national television.
Barca’s women’s team, meanwhile, have their own shirt sponsorship deal with Stanley Black And Decker which Mestre said has made the team self-sustainable.
“These are unequivocal signs that women’s football generates huge interest in Spain. Spain are European and world champions at youth level, no-one can doubt the size of women’s football, but of course it can grow even more,” he added.
Mestre is certain, though, that the Spanish women’s game would be even more popular if Real Madrid started a female team to face Barca in a ‘Clasico’ between Spain’s greatest rivals.
“It would be very positive for Spanish football if Madrid had a women’s team, we have seen the impact a Clasico has in Spain and around the world,” he said.
“It’s not for me to say what another club should do but I’m sure a Real Madrid-Barcelona clash in women’s football would be a huge deal, there is always a special interest in any game between the two clubs.”
Barca hope to attract more fans to games next season when their women’s side move into the shiny new Estadi Johan Cruyff, named after the club’s legendary Dutch player and coach which will also house the men’s reserve side and Under-19 team.
But their ambitions go beyond Spain, with the club still hopeful of opening a franchise in the National Women’s Soccer League.
“This is a strategic matter, something we began in 2015 when we opened our club’s office in New York. We have had conversations with clubs, but right now the project is on standby,” Mestre said.
“If we are going to do it we need to guarantee it is sustainable on a sporting and economic level for a long time.”
In the meantime, Barca’s focus is on strengthening their women’s teams at all age groups, and they have discussed building a residence akin to the ‘La Masia’ academy which housed the likes of Andres Iniesta before they broke into the team.
“If we detect there are enough young girls to play in our teams we could dedicate a space to having an academy and residence, there is room to do so,” Mestre added.
“To do if we would need to have a lot of players coming from outside, but in a few years we could do it perfectly.”
(Reporting by Richard Martin, editing by Ed Osmond)