The world’s best women’s soccer team isn’t going to win the 2019 World Cup, but its players might win it for somebody else.
Olympique Lyonnais has won France’s Division 1 Féminine for the past 13 years and the past four Women’s Champions League titles. It features the best player from England (Lucy Bronze), France (Eugénie Le Sommer), Germany (Dzsenifer Marozsán), Japan (Saki Kumagai), and Norway (Ada Hegerberg, who won the Ballon d’Or in 2018 as the world’s top player).
The World Cup is not Space Jam, and Lyon’s team of Monstars will go their separate ways for the tournament (minus Hegerberg, who hasn’t played for her national team since 2017). But beyond the headliners, the club’s impact will be seen in the performance of host nation France, which enters as a co-favorite with the U.S. If the French win the title, they’ll owe as much to their domestic league’s resident superteam as to their host nation advantage.
Lyon employs seven of the top eight French players, including the team’s goalkeeper, three of four likely starters on defense, captain Amandine Henry, and Le Sommer. The spine of the team has essentially been preparing together for this tournament all season, and those months (or years) of additional reps have historically proved invaluable when trying to build a dominant national side.
The famous Hungarian men’s “Golden Team” of the 1950s—Olympic champions in 1952, World Cup runners-up in 1954, and the first foreign opponent to beat the English national team in England—was constructed on a framework of players who had been conscripted by the national service to play for the army’s team Honvéd. The dominant Dutch men’s team of 1974 had a core of players who had won three consecutive European Cups with Ajax. South Korea’s men’s national team spent three months together in a training camp ahead of its home World Cup in 2002 and rode its newfound cohesion (and some fortunate refereeing decisions) all the way to the semifinals.
France is hardly the only European squad to benefit from a core that spends most of its season together. England—fourth favorites behind France, the U.S., and Germany—draws nearly half its squad from Manchester City and Chelsea. Spain, perhaps not a threat to win the 2019 tournament but looking to move closer to contention, features 10 players who ply their trade at Barcelona. By contrast, the U.S. team is scattered among the clubs of the National Women’s Soccer League, with no more than four representatives from any one team and no more than two probable starters.
The U.S. women are hardly strangers. The team has played 30 games together since the beginning of 2018. But the U.S. has held an institutional advantage in the past: the funding to put on long training camps not just immediately before the World Cup, but before the Olympics and tournaments such as the Algarve Cup. That benefit is beginning to erode as investment increases globally. The U.S. team’s Group F opponent Thailand played only 10 games in 2014 before the 2015 World Cup, but its qualification for that tournament inspired the Thai federation to invest more money in developing women’s soccer. In 2018, it played 26 games and qualified for the World Cup for the second time.
The world’s soccer federations still have a long way to go toward resolving the gender pay gap, as evidenced by the U.S. players’ lawsuit against the United States Soccer Federation, but the disparity of investment is starkest at the club level. The money spent on female players’ salaries was so paltry a year and a half ago that a study found that all the players in the world’s top seven leagues earned about the same as Neymar by himself, approximately $42 million. It’s not hard to see why a committed spender, like Lyon, is able to create a dominant force. (The same isn’t true on the men’s side, where China’s attempt to manufacture a global men’s soccer power has gotten off to a halting start.) The distribution of that money on the women’s side is still uneven enough in many of the big European leagues that the best talent gets funneled to just a couple of clubs with better environments and higher pay scales.
That builds cohesion for those countries’ national teams in the short term, but there is potentially a downside of playing on a superteam. Some suspect that Lyon’s French players aren’t properly battle-tested for a big tournament like the World Cup because they win most of their club games at a jog. If France falls far short of the high standard set by its top club team, then maybe we’ve had it backward. Maybe the national squad is really a feeder team for Lyon.