British women swap World Cup dreams for Olympics

Like their male counterparts, British female soccer players grew

up dreaming of World Cups, not Olympics golds. Now that they have

two victories at the London Games in front of the largest crowds of

their lives – and a guaranteed quarterfinals spot – that may be

changing.

Until last week, no British female team had ever competed at the

games. The last time the men appeared was in 1960.

”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 and has led England’s team to five major tournaments in

her 14 years in charge of the squad. ”But for us at the moment it

feels equally as good, as important and as enjoyable.”

In a soccer-mad kingdom, the women’s absence from Olympic

competition 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, soccer’s international body, the Olympic Organizing

Committee doesn’t allow the four nations to compete as separate

entities. The Welsh, Scotland and Northern Irish soccer

associations have long opposed the creation of a ”Team GB”

because they fear it could jeopardize their place in world soccer.

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 don’t want the Olympics to take any

commercial shine off the World Cup so insists 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.

Women’s soccer is vastly overshadowed in Britain by the men’s

game. Events rarely get more than 5,000 spectators.

Hope 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 soccer – 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 defense 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 scuttle any hope

of that. Much may depend on the performance of both teams in the

coming days.

While expectations for a medal are rising, Hope is choosing to

take the campaign one match at a time. Brazil is next.

The Brazilians are good, she said. ”But like every team they

have weaknesses, and we hope to exploit that.”

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