WPS Talent Drain

Verónica Boquete is going to FC Energy Voronezh, a club I had never heard of before, but is, according to Wikipedia, the most successful club in the Russia’s top women’s league.  (Brazil’s Aline, Cristiane, and Fabiana will also be going to Russia to play for WFC Rossiyanka.)  I adore Boquete; she plays for the team that I love, the Philadelphia Independence.  According to Equalizer Soccer, Independence coach Paul Riley expects her to be back, akin to WNBA players who go to Europe during the offseason.  I hope she returns because she is an amazing and elegant player.  Nevertheless, I fear this is a permanent departure given the general chaos that is the future of the WPS.

Boquete was named the league’s player of the year (the Michelle Akers Player of the Year.)  She was a major reason why the Independence made it to the title game, losing to the Western New York Flash on penalties.  It was not an unexpected result; the Flash has the much vaunted attacking prowess of Christine Sinclair, Alex Morgan, and of course, Her.  Despite the Flash’s big names, in my eyes Boquete was the revelation of the year, at least from a league view.*  She’s a tough, ridiculously gifted, never-say-die midfielder who deserves to be treated like any star in the men’s game.  Because she is Spanish, she (ironically) does not play for a high-profile women’s national team, which means she will not get the same worldwide recognition as other gifted non-Americans such as Louisa Necib, Fatmire Bajmaraj, Homare Sawa, and Marta.  Fortunately, WPS fans got the chance to appreciate her brilliance, even if the rest of the world–including the Spanish–did not.

But now she’s going to Russia and will get a salary that the WPS cannot compete with (about $114,000).  The influx of money into the Russian game is a mirror of what is happening in the Russian men’s game, which is why Samuel Eto’o is now the world’s highest paid player, despite moving to a team that was 11th in the Russia’s top league last year, and is no fixture of the top league.  (This is the same team that also now employs the former Brazilian great Roberto Carlos.)

The amount of money funneled through the Russian top leagues is a statement of intent, at least by the billionaire robber barons of the post-Soviet era who want Russia to be a football powerhouse.**  If said billionaire robber barons are willing to spend the money, I am not going to begrudge them the right to build a strong women’s national league.

Still, I can be sad about it.  Boquete’s departure portends bad things to come for the WPS and probably a mass exodus, at least among the top players.  Boston Breakers are on the verge of collapse (again), the attendance of Sky Blue FC did not improve despite a post-World Cup bump around the league, the WPS is fighting with magicJack (formerly Washington Freedom) owner Dan Borislow, and the second WPS commissioner has left her position only a year after taking the job.  The WPS is without a sponsor because Puma did not renew.  The 2012 season will see the international players leave for the Olympics.  Swedish international Caroline Seger is going back to her home country to play for Tyresö FF, and Marta’s future is up in the air.  If Marta goes elsewhere that would be devastating, and a real blow to the WPS’s claim that it is the best women’s league in the world.

There are also bright sides (although regular season attendance was down that trend was reversed by a post-World Cup bump, and the playoffs were the best attended ever.***), and I strongly advise you to read the Equalizer Soccer post I linked to above about the WPS offseason.  At the moment though I am not feeling very hopeful.  I blame Hurricane Irene.

Footnotes:

*  The revelation of the year in the entire sport was Homare Sawa, which is why she will deservedly win FIFA female player of the year award.  In my eyes, the top three players of the year in order are Sawa, Boquete, and Marta.  I doubt FIFA will see it that way, but FIFA has even more of an ignorance about the women’s game than it does the men’s game.

**  Even when their money is not in Russian clubs.  Roman Abramovich, the owner of the English club Chelsea put a lot of his own money into the Russian National Team and was behind Guus Hiddink’s tenure there.  Abramovich also seems to have some connection to the Russian club Zenit St. Petersburg although I cannot figure out what it is.

*** Even though WPS figures are not particularly thrilling, it should be noted that leagues across Europe would be envious of WPS numbers.  Look at the attendances for Germany’s Frauen-Bundesliga, Europe’s premier league.  The WPS 2011 average was 3,535.  During the playoffs it was 5,982.

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