For more than two decades, the Premier League has sought to attract the finest male footballers in the world. But despite the huge influx of money, the very best – including Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé – have remained tantalisingly out of reach. The Women’s Super League (WSL), on the other hand, seems to have no such trouble.
In the past week some of the world’s best female footballers have signed for English clubs, highlighting a power shift in women’s football globally and setting up an enticing season, which will be watched, at least remotely, by more fans than ever before.
The new arrivals include five of the US World Cup-winning team, most notably Alex Morgan, who scored one of the goals that knocked England out of the 2019 World Cup before celebrating by pretending to drink a cup of tea. It was announced on Friday that Morgan would be joining Tottenham Hotspur.
The US arrivals are joined by the Denmark captain, Pernille Harder, who has moved to Chelsea, a flurry of quality Australian internationals, and two England players – Alex Greenwood and the European footballer of the year Lucy Bronze – who are both returning home, signing for Manchester City, after winning the Champions League with Lyon. In addition, a crop of top young English talent has returned from the US college system.
Women’s football in England was badly hit by the pandemic. While their male counterparts were allowed to restart the Premier League season, the WSL was abandoned. Many inside the game feared that the rapid growth the sport has experienced in recent years would slow.
Fast forward seven months and there have been casualties globally. However, the health of the professional game in England has not stagnated – in fact, at the very top, it has benefited from the chaos. In the US, the poor handling of the pandemic has led to the new season being disrupted, prompting a number of its biggest stars to move to the WSL for safer competitive action before the postponed Olympics next summer.
“I was always confident that the momentum built pre-Covid would mean we were able to come back strongly,” Kelly Simmons, the FA’s head of the women’s professional game, told the Observer. “I think this has been demonstrated by world-class signings, new overseas rights deals in US and Canada and record opening-weekend viewing figures.
“We have an ambition to be the best league in the world with a blend of world-class overseas and English talent providing exciting, competitive football for our fans, and the new signings are a great step forward in us realising that ambition.”
Fans may still be shut out of stadiums, preventing the WSL from building on its growing attendances last season, but there are signs that the appetite for women’s football, and in particular the WSL, is not abating. More than two million viewers tuned in to the BBC’s Women’s Football Show on the opening weekend of the season. And the new broadcast rights deals mean WSL games will be shown by Sportsnet in Canada, and NBC and DAZN in the US, Germany and Italy.
While the pandemic may have accelerated a power shift in favour of the WSL, there were signs the move was taking place anyway. The arrival of the Australian superstar striker Sam Kerr, who was back-to-back top-scorer in the US and Australia for five seasons, at Chelsea in January was evidence of that change. As were the January moves of her international teammates Caitlin Foord, who joined Arsenal, Chloe Logarzo, who joined Bristol City, and Hayley Raso, who signed with Everton.
The return of Bronze and Greenwood last week is another sign of the shift in momentum. “I’m feeling very fortunate to move back now,” said Bronze. “I definitely would have been a bit sad if I had missed out on this WSL season when there’s so many stars, so many different teams now, and it’s getting more competitive.”
The right back feels like “this year is the year that the English league overtakes all the other leagues”, while Greenwood described the WSL as “the strongest league in women’s football”.