Women’s Bundesliga – Europe’s strongest female league?

Bayern Munich v HSV DuisburgSo what makes the Frauen-Bundesliga one of the best leagues in Europe? On Saturday 29 October, I attended Bayern Munich’s match with HSV Duisburg at the Grunwalder Stadium to find out.

Bayern, who are back-to-back German league champions, won the game 3-1. The result was not a huge surprise with Duisburg struggling near the bottom of the division but they made the hosts work for the victory. Vivianne Miedema opened the scoring for the home team just before half-time, while Lara Hess equalised for Duisburg in the second period. But goals from Gina Lewandowski and Melanie Behringer sealed a third straight league win for the Bavaria side.

Something which really stood out was the dedicated home support. On a cold, damp and grey afternoon the fans, complete with drum, created a lively atmosphere throughout. On average in 2015/16, the division attracted 1,076 fans per game with only the English Women’s Super League reaching similar figures in Europe. Bayern Munich are the most followed side with an average attendance of 1,672. The club has fully incorporated the female team in their vastly successful brand. Previously they have jointly celebrated men’s and women’s titles with supporters. The two squads both train at Sabener Strasse, Bayern’s world class training complex.

Säbener Strasse
Sabener Strasse

Interestingly not all Frauen-Bundesliga clubs are affiliated to men’s Bundesliga counterparts. Teams are able to standalone and do not require the backing from the male game. In fact, two of the most successful clubs; FFC Turbine Potsdam and FFC Frankfurt – with 13 league titles between them – are both specifically female clubs.

Strength and depth

The division is hugely competitive, with teams recently only dominating for short periods. Although Bayern have won the last two Women’s Bundesliga titles, before them VfL Wolfsburg claimed back-to-back league wins. There have been four different champions in the last ten years. In that period a team has won at least two consecutive titles. German clubs have dominated the UEFA Women’s Champions League with nine previous winners in the 15 editions of the competition. This has come as a result of the strength in depth of their domestic game.

Bayern Munich’s 18 matchday squad included nine Germans and nine non-German players. This gives the team a core of home-grown talent combined with contributions from other cultures. It is clear the Frauen-Bundesliga is an incredibly strong division and as a result attracts the best players. Many European leagues are seeing a rise in numbers of foreign stars entering. Although there’s a danger this will damage the growth and development of youth at national level, the men’s game does a great job of minimising this – with almost 50% of starters in the Bundesliga being German.

Bayern Munich v HSV Duisburg

Ahead of the 2016/17 season the German television channel SPORT1 announced a deal to broadcast the Frauen-Bundesliga live until the 2017/18. Taking over from Eurosport, the station will broadcast up to 22 live games across the season on free-to-air television and online. The fact the Women’s Bundesliga is shown on free TV is significant when reaching and inspiring vast audiences. In England, the WSL is shown on BT Sport which is a subscription channel and cannot compete with the figures of free-to-air. Dirc Seemann, Chief Editor and Director Content of SPORT1, described the league as being “highly attractive,” and fitting “perfectly,” in their current live sport offering.

Sponsorship is also helping the Frauen-Bundesliga stay ahead as it further supports the league, clubs, players and staff. The German Football Association recently increased funding by selling the naming rights of the division to Allianz until 2019. The deal will contribute around nine million euros.

German national team

It is no surprise the female German national team is so successful because of the quality of their national league. They are two-time world champions, winning the 2003 and 2007 tournaments. They have won eight of the eleven European Championships, claiming the last six consecutive titles and are unbeaten in the tournament since 1993.

Ultimately, success at international level is key to inspiring and improving the female game within a nation. It creates a cycle; as an international team succeeds it inspires more to take up and follow the sport. As a result, this improves the strength of the league which in turn improves the national team. A stronger division also attracts the world’s best players, further progressing the standard.

Having experienced a match firsthand, I can see why Germany leads the way in Europe but the English game is gaining on its old rival. Manchester City Women, who won the WSL in 2016, saw attendances increase by 50% to 2,253 in 2016. City went throughout the season unbeaten and have impressed in their first year in the Champions League campaign. Will further competition result in more equal leagues, a greater standard in Europe and further player movement? We will have to wait and see but stronger competition can only continue to improve the overall standard of the women’s game.


Two MLS games and six stadium visits across East Coast America

Gillette Stadium, Boston

On Thursday 9 September I embarked on a trip to Boston, Washington, Philidelphia and New York attending two MLS matches and visiting six sports grounds in total.

Starting in Boston, I attended New England Revolution’s match with New York City at the Gillette Stadium on 10 September. I got to the ground via taxi from the centre of Boston, with car being the easiest mode of transport for soccer games. There is a train but it only runs for NFL supporters on matchdays. My match ticket cost $27 and was located in the lower third of one of the main side stands. New England won the game 3-1 and some familiar European faces featured for the away team including Andrea Pirlo, David Villa, Jack Harrison and Frank Lampard who scored New York’s goal. Patrick Vieira was also in the dugout for the visitors.

New York City’s Frank Lampard

Although the 66,829 capacity stadium was only around a third full, it was still an impressive experience. The NFL ground seemed to adjusted well for MLS games. The match atmosphere had a feel of a typical American sports event with prizes given to the best row of supporters (which was just in front of me), t-shirt cannons and typical snacks and drinks including popcorn, hot dogs, pretzels, beer and soft drinks.

Ahead of kick-off, I attend the New England Patriots museum and shop which offered a behind the scenes look at the American Football club. It also included New England’s four Vince Lombardi Trophies and Super Bowl championship rings. The exhibit is open seven days a week but closes for private rental functions and events. It is sometimes closed before and during Patriots home games, but does re-open following 1pm home matches. It’s open 10am-5pm on weekdays, 10am-9pm on Saturdays and 10am-7pm on Sundays.

During my time in Boston, I also attended the Fenway Park tour. Not far from the centre of Boston, it is the oldest ballpark in Major League Baseball and certainly worth a visit. Hours of operation are between 9am-5pm, the last tour departs at 5pm on non-game days and on game days it departs three hours before game time. In winter it runs from 10am-5pm and is available all year-round. The tour goes around much of the park and gives insight into some of the intriguing stories from down the years – it even includes a rooftop garden. I was also fortunate enough to get a picture with three of their World Series trophies.

I next flew to Washington’s Ronald Reagan National Airport from Boston which cost $65. While in the capital I visited Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium which is home to DC United. It is located around the corner from the Stadium-Armory station. Although no tour, there is a shop which is open at typical times but on arrival, you must make staff aware via the intercom as the door is typically locked. While in the store, I was able to go out to the stands to take some photographs. DC United are in the process of building a new ground so I was pleased to visit the RFK stadium ahead of the club’s move.

Philadelphia and New York

Citizens Bank Park, Philadelphia

Next, I took the train to Philadelphia from Washington which cost $27. There I visited Citizens Bank Park which is home to the Philadelphia Phillies and located at South Philadelphia Sports Complex. Accessible via AT&T Station, there is a park tour and shop. In season (April – September) public tours are available Monday through Saturday. Tours are not available on days when the Phillies are playing afternoon home games. In the off-season (October – March) tours are at 10:30am Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Be aware tour tickets must be purchased in advance and are not sold to guests on the day of the tour. I was unable to do the tour so instead visited the store where I asked staff if I could go out to take some pictures from inside the park and they, like DC United, were very accommodating.

Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia

Literally across the road is Lincoln Financial Field where the Philadelphia Eagles play. Again I did not book to do the tour and instead spoke to the ticket office who allowed me to go out and take some photos from the stands. The tour is available Monday, Wednesday, Friday at 2pm and Saturday at 12pm and 2pm. Tickets cost $10 and $8 for children and available at Ticketmaster.com. Tickets must be purchased 24 hours prior to the tour start time.

Yankee Stadium, New York

The final leg of my trip was in New York, with train travel from Philadelphia costing $39. I watched New York City FC play against FC Dallas at the Yankee Stadium on 18 September. In a match where both sides should have won the game in an exciting finish, it ended 2-2. Similarly to the previous game versus New England, New York’s starting 11 featured their big name players. The ground included various food outlets including a Papa Johns and gluten free kiosk. My ticket cost $30 and it was a real pleasure to watch a game from the famous Yankee Stadium. Although a baseball park, the adaptation for a soccer match was seamless. The attendance was around 20,000 for the fixture, all of which went deadly quiet when the away team scored their two goals.

I would certainly recommend the east coast of America as a good location to visit a large number of sports grounds in relatively close proximity. Transport is generally easy and it was really enjoyable to visit some of the USA’s oldest cities combined with local sports teams. Stadium staff were very friendly and welcoming. It was a personal highlight to visit the Gillette Stadium which is based on a huge complex and hugely impressive modern venue. It was also incredible to visit Fenway Park, which is effectively a listed building in the States. That combined with DC United’s stadium, which the club are soon moving from, and South Philadelphia Sports Complex with three sporting venues on one site. Finally, ending the trip in New York and at the Yankee Stadium was an ideal way to close out a tremendous holiday.

History of the English Football League v Italian League inter-league match

Manchester United and France’s Paul Pogba
With Premier League club’s transfer spending surpassing a billion pounds for the first time this summer, it adds to the age-old debate of which is the strongest league in Europe. There used to be a fixture which helped find the answer.

For over 100 years an English Football League XI faced a Scottish, Irish, and Italian league counterpart. Not to be confused with the Anglo-Italian and Anglo-Scottish Cup which involved club sides, the fixtures consisted of a select team of players playing in the respective leagues at the time.

The Football League’s first games against the Scottish League came in 1892 and 1893, followed by a 4-2 win over the Irish League in 1894. Regular fixtures continued and later the English League faced an Italian League side in 1960; a 4-2 defeat at the Stadio San Siro. A further three ties between the two followed that decade.

The fixture returned on 16 January 1991 in Naples when the EFL lost 3-0 to Serie A, the most cosmopolitan league in the world at the time. The Italian League squad included Marco van Basten, Diego Simeone, Lothar Matthaus and Paolo Di Canio. Diego Maradona, who was playing for Napoli at the time, was due to play in the game but had to return to Argentina after a family illness.

The Football League side was also strong with the likes of John Barnes, Ian Rush, David Seaman and Lee Dixon. Their manager at the time, Lawrie McMenemy, praised both sets of players for their desire to play in the match. The tie though struggled to capture the imagination of the public with many tickets given away for free. However, positive discussions took place regarding a further fixture at Anfield.

Final fixture

The last match, and 13th of its kind, took place on 21 February 2006 in Hull which was an under-21s affair. The Football League won the game 1-0 and featured Manchester United’s Ashley Young, Watford’s Ben Watson and Leicester City’s 2015/16 Premier League winning captain Wes Morgan.

The Italian League had the edge over the English Football League winning the majority of inter-league games on record between the two. Familiar faces featured in the fixture over the years but dwindling attendances meant the tie ultimately came to an end.

Today the Premier League can boast as being the wealthier division resulting in such deals as Manchester United’s acquisition of Paul Pogba for a record transfer fee. Although with Juventus performing strongly in recent Champions League campaigns, who would win between the two leagues today?

All of the Football League’s inter-league results can be found here.

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Manchester United and Jose Mourinho perfect commercial fit

Old Trafford - Manchester United Newly appointed Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho, and the club’s similar commercial objectives can help bring on-field success.

Sir Alex Ferguson was a key part of the Red’s global brand development but his successor David Moyes was not prepared for the club’s endorsement pressures. Even experienced Dutchman Louis van Gaal said he needed to “adapt” to the commercial responsibilities during his first pre-season tour with United in 2014.

Mourinho however, is much more involved in the commercial side of the game. From his time at Chelsea, Inter Milan and Real Madrid the Portuguese has immersed himself in football marketing. His success, history of managing top clubs, will to win, straight talking and big personality have made him a worldwide star. Alongside his super agent Jorge Mendes, Mourinho has it all to be commercially successful and he is.

The hiring of the 53-year-old was delayed by potential conflicts of interest between a series of personal endorsement deals and United’s own commercial partnerships. It also emerged that Chelsea still owned Mourinho’s name as a trademark which had to be resolved. This just demonstrates how key the commercial aspect of the appointment was for both club and manager.

It appears the former Chelsea manager is eager to take on further commercial responsibilities in his new role at Old Trafford. Mourinho joined Instagram, complete with ‘JM’ logo profile picture, on the day his appointment was announced. This has given him a platform to communicate with the Red Devil’s huge fan base, whilst expanding into the social media market.

It was recently revealed The Special One is set to play Pope Francis in the upcoming movie Fe, English for Faith. He will voice the part in Portuguese, English, Spanish and Italian. The fact the two-time Champions League winner is fluent in a range of languages contributes further to his global endorsement appeal. Mourinho also voiced the teaser trailer for EA Sports’ upcoming computer football game FIFA 17. It is apparent the new United boss is the blockbuster manager when it comes to football advertisement.

As Mourinho starts work in Manchester, he is ready to extend his own endorsement assignments at probably the most commercial club in the world. Phil Townsend, the Director of Communications at Old Trafford, in 2012 explained to me how much that area has developed at the club. With vast sponsorship deals, it is clear just how important marketing revenue is for the Reds. For the previous two managers at Old Trafford the commercial aspect was a burden but for Mourinho, it will surely be welcomed.

As Jose Mourinho looks to return Manchester United back to the top on the field, he can seamlessly manage the extra responsibilities off it.

Manchester United’s FA Cup win huge for young squad

Manchester United’s FA Cup win this season is a huge hurdle its young squad has overcome.

The Reds beat Crystal Palace 2-1 after extra time at Wembley to claim their first trophy since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013. For the majority of the United’s young players, it has been their first season in the senior squad and early success will be huge for their development. A total of 10 players under the age of 25 have made their debut this season alone (including new signings). Although many of the academy graduates have won things at youth level, nothing can compare to senior success.

The famous class of 92 won two Premier League titles and an FA Cup in their first two seasons before going on to help the club achieve one of its most successful periods to date. Early success can only further strengthen a team’s spirit and helps overall squad growth. This season’s cup triumph also helps to end any talk of a baron trophyless run after three years without a title. It prevents pressure mounting regarding when a first senior winners’ medal for many of the squad will come.

As well as providing a huge confidence boost and belief for the squad, it also gives the players a taste of success which can only fuel their desire for more. Under Ferguson, a title-winning season would usually lead to further success the following season. This has become part of the club’s DNA, whilst continuing in the traditions and exceptions. The younger players can only grow having met these expectations to a certain extent while success also endears younger players further to fans.

Back in 2011, I wrote an article about there being a bright, young future at Old Trafford after a number of young players were either signed or promoted to the first team. That side went onto to win a Premier League title, following missing out on goal difference the previous year. Coming from two goals down at Wembley to win the Community Shield 3-2 against Manchester City had an invaluable effect on the newly formed squad’s resolve.

As Jose Mourinho takes over at Old Trafford next season, he can surely not ignore the club’s promising youth at his disposal – especially after winning the FA Cup. Louis van Gaal has followed in the club’s philosophy of promoting youth and hopefully this squad can continue to progress. Although much of United’s young side are yet to experience the success of winning the Premier League, this victory will only help with future title pursuits.

My Itabashi City Marathon experience – Tokyo, Japan 

Itabashi Marathon 2016Travelling from the United Kingdom, on 20 March 2016, I ran the Itabashi Marathon in Tokyo, Japan. This year the Itabashi Marathon was four weeks after the Tokyo Marathon and located only 13 kilometres from the centre of the city, offering an alternative to the extremely popular race. Itabashi is a city located in greater Tokyo in the Kanto region.

When the Tokyo Marathon maximum number of entries was exceeded, participants were chosen via a lottery. A total of 308,810 runners applied, giving an over subscription rate of 11.3. There were also a further 3,000 charity positions available. The Itabashi Marathon had 15,000 places which were available on a first-come, first-served basis. I entered the run in November 2015 after finding I had been unsuccessful for the Tokyo Marathon.

Entering the event from the UK and not understanding Japanese wasn’t easy but certainly doable. The official race website and corresponding emails were completely in Japanese so Google Translate was essential. I’d recommend using Chrome as this has it built in. Entrants are required to register and enter via Runnet which again is in Japanese. It requires a Japanese address and phone number so I entered the details of the hotel where I was staying. It also asks for your name in Kanji to successfully register and I easily found a number of websites which translate English into Kanji. The race cost 5,340 yen which is about £34 and around half the price of the Tokyo Marathon. Having entered, I then contacted Runnet to inform them I was an international entrant and may struggle to receive my race number in the post at my hotel, so could I collect it in Japan (numbers were posted a few weeks before the run). They informed me I would be able to collect my race pack, including number and timing chip, at the event on the day.

On the day

When travelling to the race, the nearest train station to the start and finish was Ukima-Funado on the Saikyo Line. From Ueno Station, it took around 30 minutes and included a change at Akabane Station. When arriving ahead of the marathon there were information stands which pointed out the race pack collection point. After providing my name plus confirmation email, my number was found very quickly and surprisingly trouble free. This gave a sense of just how well organised the event was. In the race pack, along with my number and timing chip, was a bum bag/pouch plus marathon programme. The bag drop off area was also very well organised and following the race, runners were directed through the baggage collection which helped speed up the whole process.

Itabishi Marathon race pack.JPG
Itabishi Marathon pouch

The race started at 9am next to a stand of outdoor seating which offered an area for spectators. The route was adjacent to the Arakawa River with countryside plus a number of baseball and football pitches alongside. The course was split into two halves in a there-and-back style, although it did not become too monotonous running the same stretch twice. During the run, I could see the Skytree tower and large city buildings in the distance and had steady support scattered throughout. It was straight and very flat with few inclines. As the path was relatively narrow, the race group remained bunched together until the second half. I would suggest getting as near to the front as possible if you are hoping for a fast time. The water stations were regular as you would expect and cups of water or sports drink were provided. Bananas, chocolate and other snacks were also given out throughout the course.

After the race, I received water and an ice cream with race results posted on the official website. I did not receive a medal or t-shirt which are commonly given out after marathons. I did not see other runners with them either so I presumed they were not given out.

Itabashi Marathon 2016 race
Itabshi Marathon race

I would recommend the Itabshi Marathon to those who fail to get into the Tokyo Marathon or are looking for an alternative to large inner city marathons. It was very well organised and fairly easy to travel to from the centre of Tokyo. Although it took a little longer to enter, I did not experience any problems. The course was not in the heart of a city but it did provide a window into Tokyo’s suburbs. Not receiving a medal or t-shirt was slightly disappointing but factoring in the low cost to enter, it was not a huge problem. The support was good and route very fast for those looking for a personal best but positioning is key on a narrow course.

The official Itabashi City Marathon website can be found here. Previous results can be found here. Runnet website can be found here.

Women’s Super League and Bundesliga most exciting in Europe – Melanie Leupolz

German women’s football leads the way in Europe, if not the world, but the game in England is certainly gaining on its old rival.

You only have to look at the UEFA Women’s Champions League to recognise Germany’s domestic dominance. They possess the most successful league in the tournament’s history, with a total of nine titles won by four different Women’s Bundesliga clubs. The German national team are the only side to have successfully defended the FIFA Women’s World Cup and have also won the last six European Championships.

However, women’s football in England is making huge leaps forward. In the last year, there has been a number of significant landmarks. The Lionesses beat Germany for the first time in 20 attempts at last year’s World Cup to finish third – the highest placed European side. That performance was the second best by an England team at a World Cup following the men’s 1966 win.

After the World Cup success, average attendances at following FA Women’s Super League (WSL) fixtures more than doubled, Chelsea beat Notts County 1-0 in front of a record crowd in the first FA Women’s Cup final at Wembley and Lucy Bronze was nominated for BBC Sports Personality of the Year.

Melanie Leupolz
Bayern Munich and Germany’s Melanie Leupolz

Bayern Munich and Germany midfielder Melanie Leupolz, who was involved in the World Cup defeat to England, is aware of these developments and how they are strengthening the English game.

“The English soccer, or the women’s soccer has changed a lot, they improved and we saw it at the World Cup,” she said when I sat down with her at Sabener Strasse, Bayern Munich’s training ground.

“In my opinion, the German Bundesliga and the English Super League are the strongest and most exciting leagues in Europe, as all teams play on a very high level. Every match day is a big challenge, what I personally like a lot,” she added.

 Sabener Strasse training complex in Munich
Sabener Strasse training complex in Munich

Chelsea begin their WSL title defence as the season returns on 23rd March. The league is expanding from the 2017 season with WSL 1 and WSL 2 increasing to 10 teams each. The English league appeals to Leupolz and is somewhere she can see herself playing, after admitting one day she would like to move abroad.

“Now I have a contract with Bayern and I am happy, we are successful and I have big goals with the club. But I am only 21-years-old. In general, I am a person who is highly interested in other countries and foreign mentalities.

“That is why I could imagine making some other experiences in the future. The English League could be a good way to go some day. But this is nothing which I think about at this time of my career. At this moment Bayern is Munich is perfect for me,” she explained.

Bayern’s number eight, a hard-working central midfielder, is pleased the famous clubs in England have female teams as it increases the strength in depth in Europe.

“I like it when the big clubs like Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester [City] and Liverpool also have good women’s team as then the soccer in Europe is improving.”

Grassroots level is again advancing in England and football is now officially the biggest female team sport. Recently the FA raised the age limit for mixed football teams from under-16s to under-18s, in a move inspired by Germany and other European countries.

The former Freiburg midfielder started playing football with the boys at her primary school and later progressed through the German tiers.

“I was playing until I was 14 with the boys in my home club, then I switched to a girls club – it was an under-17s team.

“They played in the highest league in Germany and there I played two years. Then I went to a boarding school, to FC Freiburg. I played one year in the second Bundesliga and then we went to the first Bundesliga.

“There I played three years and then I switched to FC Bayern.”

Bayern Munich going strong

Bayern Munich are a giant of world football and the 21-year-old described it as a “pleasure” to sign for them in 2014. Bayern emulated the men’s team’s success as they lifted their first league title since 1976 last season and are in a great position to reclaim it this year. They currently sit 10 points clear at the top of the Bundesliga table.

“Maybe we haven’t won many titles in the past, just the one Championship, and we are out of the Champions League so we, of course, want to win the German Championship.

“We are working hard every day and every training we are focused and want to learn more.”

Further Developments

Not only have we seen huge developments in England but also globally, with female players being included in Electronic Arts’ FIFA 2016 football video game for the first time. The Bayern star sees the fun side of having her own computer game character.

“Now seeing me play on the Playstation is great. I don’t like [to play] Playstation that much but when I see myself, then it’s a little bit funny because I’m always discussing with the referee and I think I always get yellow cards,” she jokes.

 FIFA 2016 includes Women's National Teams
FIFA 2016 includes Women’s National Teams for the first time

Mark Sampson’s side face Germany on 6 March in America during the SheBelieves Cup as they look to continue their progression against the world’s best. The German international, who has since had to pull out of the competition with an ankle injury, sees it as a chance for “revenge” and recognises what a difficult fixture it will be.

“I think with the USA, the French and England, there are many good teams and good tests for the future.

“I count, like I say, England one of the best teams in Europe, so I’m looking forward to the game and of course we want to try and beat them.”

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