The Olympics Have Begun, and It’s Ladies (Soccer) First

With women athletes on a more equal footing than ever in Olympic history, the women's soccer teams have kicked-off the games with the first round of their group matches.

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Julian Finney / Getty Images

Stephanie Houghton of Great Britain celebrates after the Women's Football first round Group E Match of the London 2012 Olympic Games between Great Britain and New Zealand at Millennium Stadium on July 25, 2012 in Cardiff, Wales.

With the torch still making its rounds through London, the opening ceremony scheduled for Friday, and athletes and fans still arriving in the city, you may be forgiven for thinking that the London Games have not begun. However, as Lord Coe announced today to the press in Cardiff, Wales: “We are ready, the nation is ready – let the Games begin.”

And so, the Olympics have actually started – and with women’s soccer, no less. Each of the twelve women’s soccer teams played Wednesday in the first of their three group-stage matches. The matches were scheduled before the official opening to fit in all the group games. And controversy almost immediately struck with North Korea’s players walking off the field due to their images being shown on a screen beside a South Korea flag. The game kicked off over an hour late and Games officials apologized to North Korean management.

There was also a historic first with the first ever women’s Great Britain soccer team taking part in the Olympics, who had the honors of opening the Games against New Zealand in the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, Wales. Steph Houghton capitalized on Great Britain’s many chances to score the opening goal in the 64th minute, which saw Great Britain win 1-0. The host side dominated the game in what was a dream start for Team GB.

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The significance — the pressure! — of such a historic opener has not been lost on the British team. This is the fifth time women’s soccer has appeared in the Olympics, and Great Britain’s coach, Hope Powell, expressed her high expectations for the game prior to the match: “It puts women’s football out there, puts it on the map and hopefully will showcase the sport,” she said.

It seemed appropriate that no other sports were scheduled for Wednesday, and organizers picked the women’s games to start before the men’s tournament on Thursday. In many respects, London 2012 will go down in history as the first modern Olympics for women. With the inclusion of women’s boxing, this is the first Games in which there are no sporting events exclusive to men. It is also the first time all competing nations will have female Olympians competing. The U.S. Olympic team has taken it one step further – it’s sending 269 women compared to 261 men, and many of its most notable stars to watch for are female – including Allyson Felix, Lolo Jones and Gabby Douglas.

For women’s soccer, this is a much-needed boost. There was an estimated audience of 40,000 attending Great Britain’s match against New Zealand, not nearly enough to fill Millennium Stadium but a wider audience than is usual in the U.K. Many players in women’s soccer are also still semi-professional. Jill Scott, a midfielder for Team GB, holds down two other jobs in addition to playing soccer. That the competition could be very tight between the likes of the U.S., Brazil, Japan and France should help secure more fans and, perhaps more crucially, funding.

The U.S. team, which has already been drumming up support from fans with their Miley Cyrus spoof ‘Party in the U.S.A’ video, are hot favorites to take gold. They opened up against France, who were looking to avenge their semi-final defeat against them in the 2011 World Cup. The French, having beaten Japanese, the current World Cup holders, in a 2-0 friendly in Paris last Thursday opened well against the Americans with a 2-0 lead. However, given that the U.S. women’s team have taken three gold medals in the last four Olympic competitions, they quickly came back with four goals of their own to demolish the French.

(More: The Way We Were: 1948 London Olympians Look Back)

The first two in each of the three groups will qualify for a quarter-final place, with the top two third place teams also securing a place in the quarterfinals. Great Britain has a lot of work to do to get out of the group stage, but history could be on their side. The first time soccer appeared in the Olympics was in 1908 in London – Great Britain won it then in front of a home crowd.