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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