While David Beckham’s omission from Team GB may have dimmed the glow of men’s football at the Olympics, the women’s game will be looking to shine at London 2012.
While the male tournament is essentially an under-23 competition sprinkled with a few senior players; the female competition will feature full senior squads and the biggest names in women’s football.
If football’s ladies manage to steal the show at the Olympics, it is likely that Team USA will play a major role. The defending champions are quite frankly the Brazil of women’s football – having won three Olympic golds and two World Cups.
They begin their campaign against France on Wednesday and will be under pressure after losing to Japan in the final of last summer’s World Cup in Germany.
Asked whether the U.S. will light up London 2012, star midfielder Megan Rapinoe told Al Jazeera “I sure hope so. I think coming off last summer we have a lot of eyes on us”.
"maybe this a chance to go into the limelight, but the only way to stay in the limelight is to be successful and get the results"
GB defender Claire Rafferty
The 27-year old has played over 50 games for her country and is confident the competition will be a hit. “Hopefully all the games will be entertaining and we can continue to raise the quality and profile of the women’s game around the world”.
Rapinoe also pointed out that the competition will make history. “It’s a pretty cool tournament in that Team Great Britain is in it for the first time ever”.
While the U.S. are firm favourites ahead of Brazil and Japan, the hosts remain rank outsiders to win gold.
Great Britain kick off their campaign, and the London Games, on Wednesday against New Zealand – knowing that a decent run is vital to keep the home crowd interested.
In an interview with Aljazeera.com, Team GB defender Claire Rafferty said “the competition is in Great Britain, in London, and that gives an extra spark. All our preparation for the last four years has been for this moment. The Olympics is a big thing for women’s football, it’s as big as the World Cup.”
The 23-year old feels that this the time for women’s football to shine. She insisted “maybe this a chance to go into the limelight, but the only way to stay in the limelight is to be successful and get the results”.
Her teammate Rachel Williams shares her convictions and is confident of doing well despite the pressure of being the host nation.
She conceded “we are going into it under pressure, but we don’t want that to affect us. We have done our homework on the other teams and are confident that we can make a push for the final”.
If the tournament manages to be a success it will not surprise some as interest in women’s football is growing – with 29 million women playing the game worldwide according to FIFA.
Danny Townsend of brand research firm Repucom believes the world’s footballing authorities deserve some credit.
“The governing bodies such as FIFA, UEFA and the AFC have done some fantastic work in recent years in promoting women’s football and making it more mainstream. The fans have responded, too, with 800,000 spectators at the last FIFA Women’s World Cup in Germany in 2011” he said.
But while fan support in Germany was encouraging, the actions of the London organisers suggest they are concerned that the Olympic competition will not be as successful.
Conceding that they will not be able to sell-out many games, the Local Organising Committee last week removed half a million tickets from sale – in an effort to make stadiums look fuller by reducing their capacities.
"Team GB’s group game against Brazil is expected to be the highest-ever attended women’s football match on British soil with 60,000 expected at Wembley"
In addition, there are many skeptics about the quality of women's football and its ability to capture public attention. FIFA President Sepp Blatter once infamously suggested that female players are “pretty” and should play in “more feminine clothes” to attract bigger crowds.
In any case, even if some matches are poorly attended, Team GB’s group game against Brazil is expected to be the highest-ever attended women’s football match on British soil with 60,000 expected at Wembley.
With tickets still on sale for many of the games, the message from the players is to not miss out. Rafferty insisted “this is chance of lifetime for players and fans. Rather than presuming, if fans come down and watch the players on show, they will change their opinion of our game”.
While Rafferty’s call may not convince everybody, what is certain is that this summer’s competition will make history. The women’s game still lags far behind the men’s in terms of popularity, but should it manage to steal the spotlight in London, it would be a major step in the right direction.