Before their trip to Barcelona, Wolfsburg put out a video in honour of the semi-final at Camp Nou, in it they joked that they are, “Més que un car”. A joke of course about the fact that Wolfsburg is a German factory town and was built less than 100 years ago to house the workers at the Volkswagen car plant. For a town of under 130,000 people, there can be no question that their women’s football team has been a marked success over the last decade, a somewhat unexpected lime-green one at that.
Yet, as soon as the two teams took to the plush pitch at the Camp Nou, the car of Wolfsburg’s mes que un car might as well have been the first VW Beetle that rolled off the assembly line. A feature of five Champions League finals, the She Wolves’ two European triumphs, in 2012-13 and 2013-14, seemed all the longer ago; snapshots of those finals almost fading into black and white to contrast the hi-def football played by Barca.
For so long, those around the game waited for the Franco-German dominance of the UWCL to break, even when FFC Frankfurt faded into the ether [and have since merged with Eintracht] and Turbine Potsdam stopped challenging, there was Wolfsburg. Wolfsburg, the ying to Lyon’s yang – or yang to their ying, if you’d rather.
The opportunities in women’s football still few enough that the big two in Europe had the stronghold, not just on the Champions League but on the crème de la crème of players. The money poured through WSL as Liga Iberdrola quietly became one of the best leagues in Europe, if not the world, but Lyon [and Wolfsburg’s] dominance in European competition could not be topped.
When Wolfsburg and Barcelona last locked horns, it was in the one-legged semi-final in 2020, fans of the game robbed of a Champions League classic due to the pandemic. The match played on a balmy August night in an empty stadium in San Sebastián, the Barca team only having played their quarter-final since the league’s hiatus, conversely Wolfsburg had managed to finish their season earlier in the summer. Arguably the best two teams in Europe when the draw was made in November 2019, there was already an air of regret that they would not be able to meet in the final. The matches shoehorned in, UEFA making a necessity of completing the competition even if the participants were not in season.
Yet, since then, Barcelona have only continued their ascent, punctuating the powershift across the continent. The mass exodus from Wolfsburg - with key players moving to Barcelona - an early warning call.
Wolfsburg remain a dominant force in Germany and have even managed to right themselves after going through some growing pains with new coach, Tommy Stroot, this season, so much so that they have again eclipsed Bayern Munich in the title race. However, for as exciting as the Frauen-Bundesliga remains, this season with its twists and turns as ever, there is a worry that it has accepted itself as a two-horse race.
Once great Frankfurt, may find their way into the upper echelons once more but a lack of ambition from TSG Hoffenheim has turned a team that play some of the best football in Germany into chum, existing to feed Bayern and Wolfsburg. Bundesliga teams are resourceful and wily, even diminutive SC Sand continue to battle away for their safety, still trying to find those canny signings to keep them afloat.
Although many leagues exist for the benefit of their home players, the Frauen-Bundesliga is more than just the German national team and B team, it’s a vital ecosystem for surrounding countries too. As the game continues to grow, Polish, Swiss and Austrian players don’t have to move to Germany but it is an easier, more palatable step for many to take, a familiarity in the culture and football style helping players transition into the pro game.
For a country that loves football as deeply as we know Germany to, there remains as sense of opportunity that hasn’t been seized upon by the power that be, of meagre attendances for Bundesliga games and a national team that has never fully been embraced by the public, despite their significant successes. Whilst it’s rather morose and alarmist to take this one match, in front of a partisan crowd of 91, 648 in Barcelona and wax about the death of the German league, it is just another alarm bell sounding around the league. A possibly, despite the miles on her clock, a fresh set of tires and new air freshener will do this old banger the world of good.
Or maybe, it’s just as Michael Cox chronicles in his seminal Zonal Marking, domestic leagues rise and fall, and although one is cresting down the other side of the hill it doesn’t diminish its significance. One league can not remain the dominant power indefinitely, just like Damallsvenskan before it, maybe the Frauen-Bundesliga’s time in the sun in done and it’s time for those in Germany to brace themselves for a cold winter.