Team GB women's football squad make history with victory on Olympic debut
Wednesday, 25 July 2012
July 25 - Global attention may be focussed on Friday's Olympic Opening Ceremony but the first competitive action of London 2012 got under way today – not in the capital but at Cardiff 's Millennium Stadium 150 miles away.
FIFA President Sepp Blatter was among an enthusiastic crowd who saw Team GB's women's football team, making history on their Olympic debut, strike a significant blow for their sport as they posted the first success for the host nation with a 1-0 win over New Zealand.
The traditionalists may not like it but as usual, the start of the football tournament – considered by many women's teams to be more important than the World Cup – preceded the Opening Ceremony, such is the tight Games timeframe.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) discourages events being held in the host city before the Opening Ceremony and London 2012 officials decided some time ago not to stage the first few football matches in London in order to avoid too much attention being wrested away from the official start of the Games.
Half-a-million football tickets were withdrawn from sale last week because of sluggish sales and although the Millennium Stadium was far from, the attendance of 24,549 was a lot healthier than the few thousand or so spectators who normally watch women's club football in the United Kingdom.
Against the country England beat 2-1 at the World Cup last year, Team GB – featuring nine English players and two Scots – started nervously, clearly moved by the occasion.
But they quickly gained a foothold with a string of gilt-edged chances – notably three headers from Anita Asante, one of which agonisingly struck the post.
Asante has not scored an international goal for over seven years and it seemed like Team GB might rue all those missed opportunities – plus two more when Kiwi keeper Jenny Bindon got off the ground to save superbly from Eniola Aluko and Alex Scott (pictured top) shot across the face of goal.
They started the second half where they left off but once again couldn't turn their domination into goals as the highly experienced New Zealanders, most of whom play their club football in Europe, defended stoutly.
In baking heat, the deadlock was finally broken on 63 minutes when Arsenal defender Steph Houghton, who had already brought a flying save from Bindon with a free kick in the first half, lined up another and this time found the corner of the net with a fierce right-foot strike.
Sarah Gregorius, who had given her side the lead at that World Cup meeting in Dresden last year, fluffed a glorious opportunity to equalise after a slip by Scott as she could only find keeper Karen Bardsley from eight yards.
Then Chelsea's Amber Hearn, New Zealand's danger woman, forced Bardsley into a tip-over save.
Great Britain coach Hope Powell hopes today's victory will settle her side down.
"The message for the girls is they made history today," said Powell.
"It was a battle.
"We wanted the girls to enjoy the experience, to try to have fun, and we recognised it was the first event [of the Games] and a chance for them to showcase their talent."
Powell was also quick to recognise the significance of the match to goalscorer Houghton, who had to miss both the 2007 World Cup and Euro 2009 through injury.
"Steph was in shock and did not know what to do when the goal went in.
"She has made history."
The top two from each group will qualify for the last eight of the competition, with the two best third-placed finishers from the three groups joining them.
But for the host nation, the historic occasion could not have ignited the Games better as Team GB held on to showcase their sport in the best possible way.
The one sour note, perhaps, was that hundreds of fans were reported to have missed kickoff because of heavy security outside the stadium, a stark warning to London 2012 for the next two-and-a-half weeks of sport.
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May 2012: Exclusive - London 2012 will put women's football on the map, insists Briton Kelly Smith