The London Olympics won’t get underway in the Olympic Stadium on July 27, but actually two days before and over 150 miles away, in Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium.
The honour of lifting the curtain does not fall on Usain Bolt, or Ryan Giggs, but his female counterparts on the British women’s football team, who kick off the Games at 4 p.m. on July 25 against New Zealand.
Scheduling issues caused the early start rather than intentional promotion, but those involved in the sport will hope the 90 minutes in the spotlight will have a lasting effect.
“When you get a massive event there’s so much media exposure and when it finishes that diminishes,” said Sue Smith, who has 93 caps for England. “We hope we can prevent that from happening.”
Damaged cruciate ligaments have prevented Smith from taking part in the Games, and she will instead focus on promoting the sport from the BBC pundits’ chair along with fellow veteran Faye White – 90 caps, 12 goals – for whom pregnancy ruled out the prospect of a place on the squad.
The pair are reaching the ends of their professional careers, and will be able to reflect on playing at a time when attitudes towards the game they love changed, if only slightly at home.
“To go from a stadium where you play in front of 50 people to going to a World Cup and play front of 30,000…
you hope there will be an impact when you get home because it feels like it when you’re in the bubble,” White said. “But when you get back it dwindles and men’s football and rugby takes over.”
White, who admits to “mixed emotions” when discovering she was pregnant in an Olympic year, might have had her perspective a little skewed by years of hard slog with precious little recognition, but the scale of the obstacles women’s football must overcome is huge.
English Football Association (FA) figures show the levels of participation in women’s football makes it the third biggest team sport in the UK, but the disparity between it and the men’s game are stark.
Now entering its second year, the FA’s Women’s Super League runs during the summer months when men’s football disappears. While average crowds have grown from around 200 to over 1000, in the 2010/11 English Premier League (EPL) season the average attendance was 35,273.
In order to sustain itself, the Super League consists of eight teams, for which only four players can earn over £20,000 a year. This amount of course is just a fraction of what stars in the EPL take home every week.
Until a legal dispute saw the 2012 season canned, the USA’s Women’s Professional Soccer league was the world leader, with the best players and the highest attendances (the highest gate in 2011 was over 15,000).
The advent of the Super League has finally seen some of the best home-grown stars return across ‘The Pond’ to play in England. Super League organisers hope it can soon grow bigger than long-established European leagues such as those in Germany and Sweden.
By getting to the final of 2009’s European Championship, English women proved they can play with the best. A medal-winning performance this summer from Britain’s best could take the sport a step closer to the perception its grassroots popularity deserves.
(Feature image: thesportfeed.com)