In front of a crowd of over 70,000 people at Wembley last night, women’s football in Britain was given the perhaps the biggest boost that it could have been given. There has been considerable huffing and puffing on the subject of teams representing the constituent parts of Britain being represented at this summers football tournament, along with familiar cries that football – in spite of a long history that is usually overlooked when making such bold statements – is somehow “not an Olympic sport”, but such considerations were put on the back burner yesterday evening as the British womens team both beat and outplayed a Brazilian team that many prior to the tournament would have considered to be amongst its favourites to win the gold medal in a couple of weeks time.
The goal came early on in the match. Inside two minutes, left-back Steph Houghton rounded the Brazilian goalkeeper Andreia and placed the ball tidily into the open goal from from a narrow angle. We might have expected a ninety minute long war of attrition to follow as Britain sought to repel a Brazilian attack still featuring the godmother of womens football in that country, the sensational and legendary Marta, to throw everything at them in pursuit of an equalising goal, but the British defence was composed and well marshalled, whilst on the break the home side looked as likely to to score as their opposition did, and on the occasions that they did manage to break the defence down, Brazil found the British goalkeeper Karen Bardsley in no particular mood to allow a way through to her goal. Indeed, the best other chance of the match also fell to Britain when they were awarded a penalty kick early in the second half. Kelly Smiths shot, however, was too close to Andreia and the goalkeeper saved comfortably.
In a strict mathematical sense, last night’s result wasn’t critical to the teams progress. Two straight wins against New Zealand and Cameroon had already guaranteed that both teams playing at Wembley last night would qualify for the quarter-finals of the competition. From a psychological perspective, however, the importance of winning all three group matches can hardly be underestimated and in addition to this winning the group means a winnable – but still difficult – quarter-final match against a Canadian team which disappointed at last year’s World Cup in Germany (but will have a point to prove as it is hosting the next tournament in 2015) at Coventry City’s Ricoh Arena on Friday night, and whilst avoiding last year’s World Cup winners Japan in the process. Winning this match would put them into the semi-finals, where even defeat would still give the team a fifty-fifty chance of a bronze medal in the third place match.
The importance of last night for women’s football in Britain is greater than merely their chances of progressing in this summers Olympic competition, though. In front of a mass audience both in the stadium – that 70,000 plus crowd last night was by far the biggest to have ever watched an international match in this country – and in front of television sets, this team gave women’s football in Britain an iconic moment, one by which future successes may be set. If fifty, one hundred or a thousand young girls watching at home start pestering their parents to let them play a sport which they may have previously thought to be ‘not for girls’, if better sponsorship and bigger crowds to the Womens Super League in the future or if women’s football is treated to a little less of the patronising sneering to which it is usually subjected, then this summers Olympic adventure will not have been in vain, regardless of what the result of their next match may be. On such nights as last night, perceptions can be changed for good.
Of course, women’s football isn’t to everybodys taste and there will be those who only consider what is placed before them without, perhaps, considering the vast gulf in resources available to the highest levels of the respective games. It is a positive step that this greater degree of attention is coming from the womens game off its own steam, but it is not enough to significantly improve the profile of the game in this country off its own back. Coverage of the Womens Super League in this country does exist but it can be patchy and whilst websites such as She Kicks are invaluable resources, it remains a truth that womens football is amongst the many forms of the game that are kicked into touch – as it were – in the media scrum for the all-conquering Premier League. More regular coverage of the womens game in the mainstream press would be desirable, but it is very important that it be the right sort of coverage.
Perhaps, though, the such considerations are for another day. Last night was a job well done for this team and it was also sign of the continuing significant progress of womens football in Britain. Regardless of what happens against Canada in Coventry on Friday night, the team which played at Wembley last night will always have the night they beat Brazil, and such memories are, and for those involved, perhaps the most important thing to take away from any Olympic Games.
Mark Murphy will be back shortly with his round by round updates on both the womens and mens tournaments from this summers Olympic Games.
You can follow Twohundredpercent on Twitter by clicking here.