SPORTS

For Britain's female players, a football gold in Olympics no longer sounds so far-fetched.

07/29/2012 10:26 EDT | Updated 09/28/2012 05:12 EDT
CARDIFF, Wales - Like their male counterparts, British female footballers grew up dreaming of World Cups, not Olympics golds. But with two victories in front of the largest crowds of their lives — and a spot in the quarterfinals assured — that may be changing.

"Throughout all my career it's always been the World Cup," said British coach Hope Powell, who first played for England at the age of 16. "But for us at the moment it feels equally as good, as important and as enjoyable. I'm just really pleased to be part of the whole thing, as are the players and the staff."

Until last week, no British female team had ever competed at the games. The last time the men appeared was in 1960.

In a football-mad kingdom that may seem strange, but not when you consider that the four nations that make up Britain — England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland — field their own male and female teams at international competitions, and have their own associations and supporters.

Unlike FIFA, football's international body, the Olympic Organizing Committee doesn't allow the four nations to compete as separate entities. The Welsh, Scotland and Northern Irish football associations have long opposed the creation of a "Team GB" because they fear it could jeopardize their place in world football. As a result, the vast majorities of both squads are English.

The men's competition has been mostly ignored in Britain because it doesn't represent the pinnacle of sporting achievement like other Olympic events. FIFA doesn't want the Olympics to take any commercial shine off the World Cup so insist that the men's competition be an under-23 event with just three older players allowed.

The women's game features no such restrictions. The crowd of 25,000 who saw Britain ease their way into the quarterfinals in Cardiff, Wales, on Saturday with a 3-0 win over Cameroon were watching the best female players of their generation.

Female soccer is vastly overshadowed in Britain by the men's game. Fixtures rarely get more than 5,000 spectators.

Powell said a crowd of 70,000 were expected at the team's next fixture against Brazil at Wembley on Tuesday to decide who tops Group E. The team has never appeared at Wembley — the home of English football — or played against the Brazilians, who like the men, are a global powerhouse.

"The support for women's football is there, and it feels great and the atmosphere is brilliant," said Alex Scott, an Arsenal defender who has been a pillar in England's defence for close to a decade.

"Growing up I didn't think about Olympics, but I can honestly say now I'm in it, it feels special and amazing."

It's not clear whether "Team GB" will last much longer than the final whistle of the games. Many inside the sport are predicting that opposition to unified sides will scupper any hope of that. Much may depend on the performance of both teams in the coming days.

After drawing its opening game, the men must beat the United Arab Emirates on Sunday to keep its campaign on track.

With Powell as coach, the women's team is not lacking international experience. After switching from playing, she has led England's team to five major tournament in her 14 years in charge. In 2010, she was honoured by Britain's Queen Elizabeth II.

While expectations are rising of a medal, Powell is choosing to take the campaign one match at a time.

"We can't ignore the fact the Brazil are a good side, we respect that. But like every team they have weaknesses, and we hope to exploit that," she said. "Everybody will be up for since its Brazil, it's at Wembley. We are striving to win aren't we?"

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Follow Chris Brummitt at http://www.twitter.com/cjbrummitt

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