The London Olympics might be getting underway in the Olympic Stadium on July 27th, but two days beforehand and over 150 miles away, Olympic action will actually kick off in Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium.
The honour of lifting the curtain on the 2012 games does not fall on Jamaican athletics star Usain Bolt or British footballer David Beckham, but rather his female counterparts on the British women’s football team, who kick off the Games at 4pm on Thursday 25th against New Zealand.
Scheduling issues caused the early start, 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,” says Sue Smith, who has 93 appearances for England.
“We hope we can prevent that from happening.”
Smith unfortunately will be sidelined along with fellow veteran Faye White, for whom pregnancy ruled out the prospect of a squad place. 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.” says White.
“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 obstacle women’s football must overcome is huge.
Football Association 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 man’s game are stark.
Now entering its second year, the Super League runs during the summer months, when men’s football disappears, and average crowds have grown from around 200 to over 1,000. But in 2010/11, the Premier League’s 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, which is a fifth of Chelsea’s Belgian starlet Eden Hazard’s net weekly pay packet.
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 seen some of the best home-grown stars return across ‘The Pond’ to play in England and Super League organisers will hope it can soon grow bigger than long-established European leagues such as Germany’s Frauen Bundelsiga and Sweden’s Damallsvenskan.
By getting to the final of 2009’s European Championship, the English women proved they can play with the best and a medal-winning performance from Britain’s best could take the sport a step closer to the perception its grass-roots popularity deserves.
“It’s our chance to show ourselves on a football front… and it will be important for the girls to do well,” says Smith.
“And we can do well: we’ve got a good group, and if we progress then who knows…”