It’s been three years since Olympique Lyonnais acquired a majority stake in Seattle-based NWSL club Reign FC, forging an international sisterhood between women’s clubs unlike any model in professional sports.
The partnership has brought some of the world’s best known players into the same organizational stable, including Lyon’s Ada Hegerberg (who won the Ballon d’Or in 2018) and OL Reign’s Megan Rapinoe (who claimed the trophy in 2019). Ahead of their clubs’ joint US tour, Rapinoe and Hegerberg sat down for an exclusive conversation with the Guardian to discuss their teams’ unique sorority, their impressions of England’s epochal Euro 2022 triumph and their hopes for next year’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.
What were your thoughts on Euro 2022 and how it seemed to penetrate English culture, not unlike the 1999 World Cup in the United States?
Rapinoe My overarching feeling was like, everyone’s late to the party. This is not surprising to me at all. I feel like I’ve known that the level of play was going to be that [high]. I knew that the European teams, especially in the last five years with the rise of the club game, have been sensational. Of course this was going to be how it was going to go. We literally grow gardens out of cement every single time. Tell me one women’s tournament in the last 15 years that hasn’t exceeded expectations. Part of it is like: “Welcome, everybody, to the party. You’re extremely fucking late, but fine.” And I feel proud about that. Ada should feel the same and all the women’s players should feel the same because we did this. We did this. We put this into motion through literally sheer will, while also being the best players in the world.
The way that the English players held themselves in this tournament, they just embraced the moment fully and didn’t fall into the narrative or didn’t allow themselves to be stressed out about it. You could just tell they stepped into themselves. And it’s yet another data point, justification, reason, a clear picture of why investing in women’s football is good business, first and foremost. It’s a proper money-making opportunity.
So I feel so many different emotions. Just being as old as I am, it’s hard not to be jaded by some of this stuff, but progress moves at the speed that it does and I think being able to build on this is huge. And I’m just hoping that all of the main stakeholders can really take a look in the mirror and understand that it’s been them that’s been holding the game back, it’s not been us. I feel incredibly proud. I think all of the supporters should feel incredibly proud. I think this is a total watershed moment, this whole year, going from Champions League to what Barcelona did [setting multiple world attendance records].
While the US women’s national team routinely draws large crowds, the NWSL has failed to capture the same audience. What is the next step for growing the club game in the United States to what we’ve been seeing lately in Europe?
Rapinoe It has to come from a place of investment. It can’t just be a charity thing. That’s sort of willfully naive at this point. I think we’ve proven time and time again – whether it’s in the club game, in the international game, in friendlies and Euros and Champions League, whatever – it’s good business to invest in women’s football. And it’s also the right thing to do, but I think before it’s the right thing to do, it’s good business. We shouldn’t be trying to copy every single thing that men’s sports has, and I think that’s obviously a really easy trap to fall into. But I think when you actually invest in women’s sports: the energy is there, the culture around it is there, the fandom is there, but if I can’t figure out how to find the stream … nobody is going to watch the game.
So it’s investing around the streaming services, investing around the front offices, investing around the facilities for the players, the stadiums for the players, ticketing, marketing, all of that. That’s the only thing that’s missing. The players and the product on the field have never been missing. It’s just that we’ve been neglected and under-financed and under-invested in forever. Lyon’s a perfect example. Champions of Europe a million times, champions of France a million times. You have that success and now coupling that with maybe a sea change in the culture, especially after the World Cup in France, you’re seeing obviously massive returns. The Euros were just sensational, Champions League this year was absolutely sensational and you’re seeing bigger attendances around the world.
There is this unmistakeable sense of momentum coming out of the Euros straight into a World Cup year. Aside from lifting the trophy, what would you most like to see out of next year’s tournament?
Hegerberg I keep on scratching my head after every big tournament. You have the World Cup, you have the Euros and then we get back to club and then it’s like the whole momentum just fades away. And I think that’s a huge problem. Like I’m a player in Europe, obviously, and I’ve seen what’s been happening here and – it’s like Megan mentioned earlier – every tournament has been a success in terms of interest from your home country, on a world basis, the coverage. You have this insane momentum and then you have all these best players going back to their clubs and it’s like you kind of lose this momentum. And I think it’s a shame.
DAZN did an incredible job with the Champions League this year. You had some pretty powerful coverage. People actually got a good platform to see all of the best games. But the problem is our home leagues, basically. I feel like England, they’re very good at selling their league. They’re very good at marketing their league, but the other leagues, we’ve got to step up. The federations are in control of these leagues and they have a huge job to do in order to lift the whole product, with the clubs obviously, and kind of shake it up a little bit and start selling the leagues, start selling good football matches where you actually have the best players playing every weekend. And I really think that that’s the next step, especially in Europe. You have to get the momentum up the whole year round.
Rapinoe The only thing I would say about the World Cup next year, I would love to see the ball not be dropped. It’s absurd if it’s dropped again. That’s from the major stakeholders. That’s Uefa, that’s the federations, that’s Fifa, that’s Gianni [Infantino], specifically. It’s the Australian federation, everything. We know now that if you invest in this World Cup, it’s going to work. It’s just not even a fucking question. I would love to see people stop saying: Wow, I think we have something here! This is insane if you don’t invest in it. Whether that’s people are producing content or streaming services or sponsors or whatever it is.
It’s like a literal gold mine and I just don’t understand. I mean, I do understand: it’s sexism and patriarchy. The major stakeholders, most all of them are men and white men. Them being able to stand up and say: “You know what, like we got it wrong. We’ve been getting it wrong. We’ve been sexist.” Because that’s really what it is. We haven’t invested despite all of the key metrics pointing that this would be an incredible [return on investment].
You need to invest in the infrastructure around women’s sports, whether that’s streaming, branding, marketing, journalism, all of the things that help prop it up. I mean the men’s game, everybody talks about it all the time. I don’t want to know as much about LeBron James as I do, but I can’t not, because it’s in my face all the time. I’m sure in European football, with Canal+ and BBC Sport and all that, you probably don’t want to know as much about Jack Grealish as you do, but you’re going to anyway, because you can’t get him out of your mind. Stuff like that is really important.
Hegerberg This kind of coverage will help change the mentalities, will help raise a completely different generation into training different, training smarter, to put the same demands to six-year-old girls that you do with six-year-old boys, for example. I wish that we were taken as seriously as boys when we started playing. And I think that has a huge impact on the level and long term as well, because I think that the game only can get better. The way the girls read the game, technically, we’ve seen that it’s been a huge change in the tempo and physically. Changing mentalities with having better coverage and investment, it will also have a huge impact on the next generation and how they play in 15 years, and I think that’s very important because we’re here to also raise the level year in and year out.
You mention the quality of European sides, Megan. How is the US women’s system planning on keeping up with Europe when they’re so clearly on America’s heels?
Rapinoe The game is growing exponentially every year. It’s a huge challenge for us. I think the football being played at the Euros was the best football in the world that we’ve seen ever. I don’t think that’s even a question. It’s a huge challenge for us. We do know how to win. We do have a winning culture here. We know what we’re up against. So I think, for me, honestly, it’s exciting. It’s exciting that so many teams are so much better. It’s exciting that the level of competition is what it is. I think that brings out the best in everyone. But yeah, we’ve got a tall order to keep not only obviously our No 1 standing but to keep ourselves world champions. I’m excited for it. I think if you’re not pushed and you’re not challenged and you’re not shitting yourself a little bit, like what’s the point?
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism