Up until last weekend’s draw against Atlético de Madrid, many thought Barcelona’s journey in La Liga this year was going to be a one-sided affair. Although it was not their best game, the truth is that not many other teams in La Liga seem in a position to challenge the Catalans in the way Atleti did. But if there’s something we learned last year, it’s that all matches need to be played, and it’s hard to anticipate how the Champions League and international call-ups can affect a team.
This weekend, it is up to Sporting de Huelva to test whether this tie has knocked any confidence out of Barcelona. While they’ll surely try to make the most of this opportunity when they travel to El Mini on Saturday, the task is certainly not an easy one for Sporting de Huelva, a small women’s team from southern Spain. In fact, this game is one of the best examples of the disparity between teams linked to powerful men’s clubs and independent women’s teams in La Liga Iberdrola.
Sporting de Huelva, the David that defeated Goliath
Similar to other leagues around the world, the women’s competition in Spain has a mix of women’s sides made up of some of La Liga’s most prominent clubs and independent teams. While life is generally sweeter for players at Barcelona, Atlético de Madrid or Valencia, smaller teams face the constant challenge of having to compete against an opponent with a seven-figure budget, while fighting for economical survival. Even amongst teams linked to men’s clubs, this disparity is still significant: while in some, players are considered professional athletes, others have to balance their football careers with full time jobs.
Sporting de Huelva is probably the most iconic amongst these smaller teams. Exclusively a women’s club with its own development academy, they were the last independent team to win a title in the Spanish competition, a quest that no other had achieved since 1999. In 2015, they defeated Rayo Vallecano and Atlético de Madrid to get to the Copa de la Reina final, where they beat Valencia to claim the trophy.
“We’ve been in the First Division for 12 years, competing against teams with more budget than us, and have managed to avoid relegation,” explains Manuela Romero, who co-founded Sporting de Huelva as a women’s team in 2014. “That year, we became the standard bearer of the smaller teams. But in these past two seasons, the level has risen even more, and with it so have the disparities.”
Surviving amongst the Spanish powerhouses
The increased interest from some of La Liga’s clubs to invest in their women’s side has been celebrated around the game, but it poses a challenge for the independent teams. To mitigate that, some teams have linked themselves with local men’s clubs, and the league and Iberdrola, its main sponsor, have given teams financial support to help them grow.
“The addition of Iberdrola has been very important for the growth of the league and for its impact,” says Romero. “They also contribute an amount to support the structural growth of the teams, which is helping us move forward.”
But aside from that support, how does a team like Sporting de Huelva manage to survive and remain competitive in this improved Spanish competition?
“Our main sponsor is Fundación Cajasol (a local bank), and we have other sponsors and the support of different institutions, season tickets… For us, it’s hard to maintain ourselves every year, but we continue fighting to find financial support and to keep on going.”
A deceiving sense of growth
The new additions to La Liga, including “The Best” Lieke Martens, Toni Duggan, Élise Bussaglia or most recently Francisca Ordega, as well as Barcelona’s success in last year’s Champions League and the increased attention to the national team, have made La Liga Iberdrola more marketable and attractive. In a way, it has also hyped the competition and sometimes given fans a deceiving sense of progress that is not necessarily applicable to the competition as a whole.
“The disparity is huge. Teams that are linked to a men’s club have big advantages over those of us that don’t. Just by looking at the training facilities and the team that Barcelona has, for example, or at the way they travel and the whole infrastructure around them,” explains Romero. “We are very different, and this is a tough league; with the rise of women’s football in men’s clubs, the smaller clubs have a lot of work to do. We are not going to reach what they have, we just want to avoid relegation and continue to grow.”
Even though many of these teams are only semi-professional and most share training facilities with other local clubs, there are costs that come with playing in a national league that can’t be avoided and that limit the ability of these teams to offer paid contracts and attract national and international talent.
“We are in a corner of Spain (the most beautiful, if you ask me), so our trips are long and expensive. That’s where an important part of our budget goes. But as a club we tighten our belt quite a lot, and try to be comfortable even with our modest budget,” continues Romero.
“I think football itself is not profitable for the smaller teams. In our case, we just want to keep our teams alive and continue competing in the first division. Sometimes we go through really hard times and have periods of economical deficit, so we have to work very hard to compensate the income and expenses budget.”
Finding a sustainable path forward
It is obvious Barcelona’s main goal is to put together a team that will be able to compete in the Champions League, against the likes of Lyon and Wolfsburg. But a strong competition is also beneficial for the Spanish dominant forces. It would not only help them prepare for those big matches, but also attract international talent and attention that will benefit the club, and develop local players for the national team.
Finding the right balance has proven hard for many other leagues, and it certainly looks like the gap between these teams is only going to get wider. All around the world, the sustainability of women’s leagues is subject of debates and experimentation.
And while in other European countries this process is already in progress, for La Liga the time is now to decide what kind of league it wants to be moving forward, and who will be a part of it.