Olympics football: Team GB women attract new supporters

By Paul FletcherBBC Sport at City of Coventry Stadium

Let's start with a little perspective.

Great Britain coach Hope Powell was a member of the England team the first time they played Canada, back in Sweden in 1995. The crowd that day was 665.

Powell was in charge of the England side the last time they played Canada, in last year's Cyprus Cup. The attendance… a mere 30.

On Friday night in Coventry, her GB team were knocked out of the Olympic tournament, losing 2-0 to shatter their hopes of winning a medal. That game was played in front of 28,828.

On Tuesday night they beat Brazil at Wembley in front of 70,584. That followed two games at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff played in front of 24,549 and 31,141.

OK, there is no doubt that many of the people who turned out to cheer on GB - the families, the children with union flags painted on their faces and the merely curious - did so not necessarily because they are ardent supporters of women's football, but because they wanted to be part of the Olympics.

But in some ways that is the point. There was a new audience to be won over.

The word legacy has been mentioned a lot during these Games, while banners with the word 'inspire' are evident around all the Olympic venues that I have visited.

And everyone associated with the women's football team came into this tournament acutely aware that they had an unprecedented opportunity to raise the profile of their game.

The Games provided them with a vehicle to showcase their sport and, despite failing to secure the victory against Canada that would have guaranteed them a shot at winning a medal, GB's efforts must be regarded as a success.

It was the first time they had competed in the Olympic women's football competition and Powell's team effectively kicked off the Games for GB when they played New Zealand two days before the opening ceremony.

The team found themselves on the front and back pages after that match and, even though they were competing for the spotlight against all the other Olympic sports thereafter, they continued to command column inches as they went through the group stage undefeated.

By topping a group that included Brazil, they won a lot of new fans. I asked people on Twitter what they thought of the team's performance after their 1-0 victory over the South American side and there was not one negative response. The superb sweeping move that led to Jill Scott's goal against Cameroon showed a flair and invention any team would be happy to possess.

There is no doubt that GB were disappointing against Canada; a tired-looking side which started slowly, conceded a goal for the first time in the tournament and never quite managed to carve open their opponents, but Powell is keen to stress the wider significance of what her team has done.

"We have raised awareness throughout the whole of Great Britain. People are now aware that women's football does exist and that it is a fantastic product," she said.

Birmingham City winger Karen Carney described the campaign as a "life-changing" experience and expressed the hope that the team will have inspired young girls to take up the sport.

"My dream came true when I walked out in front of 70,000 at Wembley - I think that is every young boy's dream, let alone a girl's dream, to do that," said Carney.

"Hopefully we've have created a legacy and another young girl can go out and do that again, but next time in front of 90,000.

"We have got to push out and use the media. We have got to create role models, superstars and ambassadors for the game.

"There has been a massive stigma that we have had for so many years, but we have showed there is a market and a following - people do enjoy it."

The eight-team FA Women's Super Leagueexternal-link is in its second season and runs from April until October. It is currently on a mid-season break for the Games but will resume later this month. It will be interesting to see whether there is an increase in attendances. The highest so far this season is 5,052 for a match between Arsenal and Chelsea. The lowest saw 105 attend a fixture between Liverpool and Bristol Academy.

Powell, who has made it clear she would like to see a GB women's football team take part at the next Games, was honest enough to admit that her team could have made a bigger impact if they had lasted longer in the tournament.

But if the opinion expressed by England's 1966 World Cup winner Sir Bobby Charlton is in any way representative of those who watched GB, then they have achieved an aim that might prove to be more profound and significant than winning a medal.

"I have had to remind myself that I am not watching the men," said Charlton. "I was sceptical of women's football - that was a mistake. Women's football used to be ridiculed, but not anymore."


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