How transfers in women's football are evolving

Barcelona set a new transfer world record in women's football in 2022
Barcelona set a new transfer world record in women's football in 2022 / Eric Alonso/GettyImages

Women’s football is evolving at a rapid pace and the transfer market is no different.

For a long time, player movement even at the top end of the women’s game was dictated by free transfers and rarely would money change hands between clubs. Players would tend to move only at the end of their contract, while contracts themselves tended to be short – many just 12 months.

But as with the development of every other aspect of women’s football, the changing nature of the transfer market and how clubs approach it is a natural progression and to be expected.

In 2022, Barcelona broke the world transfer record with their capture of England international Keira Walsh in September. But more clubs are spending more money on transfers in a more general sense.

FIFA’s newly released Global Transfer Report for 2022 has confirmed there were 1,555 international transfers completed during 2022. In terms of sheer volume, that number is way up on previous years – it stood at 1,303 in 2021 and was only 694 in 2018.

The number of different clubs involved in international transfers has also increased – 500 in 2022, more than double the 220 clubs four years earlier.

The vast majority of transfers within women’s football remain free transfers for out of contract players – 85% of the 1,555 international transfers in 2022. But the proportion of permanent transfers with a transfer agreement between the two clubs has more than doubled since 2021.

Permanent transfers requiring a transfer agreement between clubs accounted for only 3.5% of all international transfers in 2021. It was only a fraction in 2018. But in 2022, that number was 7.3%.

For reference, in men’s football, only 13.3% of international transfers in 2022 were permanent deals involving a fee – it may seem more because of the media attention such deals attract.

The total spent on women’s football international transfers in 2022 totalled $3.3m (£2.7m/€3m). That is the most ever, up an enormous 62% on the global spend on international transfers for 2021.

More clubs spent transfer fees internationally and more received them than ever before.

Most money ($1.7m) was spent on players between the age of 24 and 29, with players from 18 to 29 accounting for $2.9m of the entire $3.3m transfer spend.

It is not only transfer types and fees that are changing. The players contracts being handed out are also evolving. Around 62% of contracts for players who transferred internationally in 2022 were still for one year or less. However, 21% were for up to two years and nearly 16% were for more than two years – the highest ever share of contracts being that length.

Arsenal manager Jonas Eidevall gave his thoughts on the transfer market evolution only recently.

“We can see that in the transfer market already - transfer fees are going to be a more regular theme. Clubs are more seldom going to let contracts run out,” he said.

“I think transfer fees, together with salaries, are going to increase. That’s the way the game is progressing at this time. Transfers between English clubs are even more [regular] because it goes from a different regulation than when it goes from international transfers.”

“For international transfers, you can speak to a player when she has six months left on her contract. Between English clubs, you’re not allowed to do that, which obviously puts everything in a totally different perspective. I don’t think any player is just interested in playing their contract out until the end and then standing without a contract. What happens if you get an injury in the last week of the contract? Who’s going to take [the player]? That makes it more difficult to do a free transfer between English clubs. That [means] there’s going to be an increase in transfer fees, of course.”

What Eidevall was talking about with regard to domestic transfers was seen with Tottenham’s 2023 capture of Bethany England, done for a record fee between WSL clubs. That deal and others like aren’t actually included in FIFA’s international transfer figures, so it goes further than even the numbers published in the Global Transfer Report.

Manchester United have spent fees both domestically and internationally so far in 2022/23, paying money for the likes of Nikita Parris and Maye Le Tissier from fellow WSL sides during the summer, as well as a reported £160,000 to bring Lisa Naalsund to England from Norway this month.

Discussing the growth of transfer fees, United boss Marc Skinner expressed concern about what it could mean for clubs with fewer financial resources, but sees it as a positive trend overall.

“It's going to be a positive, but obviously when that happens there's more expense that comes into it. You know, the clubs that can afford it can continue to grow, the clubs that can't will have to find a different way,” he explained.

“[Overall] I think it's a really good thing, because it shows that clubs are happy to invest. I've been at clubs before where it's hard to attract players. For the likes of them to attract players I'm not surprised, it's part of their growth.

"I think what it will do is it will make the [WSL] more exciting, those players will make their teams better and it will be more challenging, for us and for everybody else above and below us."