By the time July 31st 2012 arrived, everyone realised how big a deal the Olympics were. Even the early sceptics, from politicians to everyday naysayers, were placated. And the country was hungry for heroes, from expected sources and elsewhere. In the build-up to the Olympics, much discussion had arisen around the place of football within the Games and, specifically, whether Team GB would be permitted to compete. Internal wrangling between the domestic Football Associations and the risk to their individual long term stabilities from a FIFA Executive that couldn’t quite let go of its iron grip on the sport had threatened to derail home nation inclusion; amongst the furore, it was a small surprise in itself when Team GB Women kicked off the Olympics two days before the opening ceremony with a 1-0 victory against New Zealand.
A tight affair, the opening game had been settled through a powerful free kick from Arsenal left-back Steph Houghton and the host nation followed it up with a 3-0 victory over Cameroon, leaving Team GB already qualified going into their final group game against the heavily fancied Brazilians. This would be the women’s team’s first appearance at Wembley stadium, and they were joined by a near-capacity crowd.
Houghton, who had also scored the final goal in GB’s defeat of Cameroon, continued her bid for early Olympic stardom by putting the hosts ahead, demonstrating an appropriately Brazilian degree of technique to vault Andreia and smash home from an exceptionally tight angle. While Brazil would up the pressure on GB throughout the game, it was ultimately the hosts who came closest to extending their lead with a penalty through Kelly Smith which the Brazilian ‘keeper kept out. GB held on to achieve an historic 1-0 victory, but the real victory was not so much in the result as in what it meant for women’s football in the country. That 70,000 spectators turned out was an eye opener and an overdue demonstration of the appetite that the nation truly holds for women’s football. A hidden younger sister of the men’s game it may have been for many years before, but the clear impact of the Brazil game was not only the capability of Great Britain’s female footballers but the potential audience the game has to tap into.
By the end of 2012, women’s football would have a new strategic plan, a new degree of media attention and a new breed of young, up-coming, marketable stars. Suddenly, women’s football had a focus and a spotlight. The FA sat up, paid attention and launched a 5 year ‘Game Changer’ plan, investing £3.5 million into the women’s game from 2014-2018. Only the next few years the impact of much will be seen, specifically the introduction of the WSL 2 and the continued development of semi-professional football in England, and the momentum delivered by London 2012 must not be squandered.
History, really, is not written on single moments, but it can be influenced by them. Houghton’s third goal in three games, her goal to set a national celebrating alongside all fans of women’s football may just be one of those moments.
That’s why it makes number 3 in our countdown of 2012.