By Mike Collett
LONDON (Reuters) - The idea of women playing soccer at the Olympics would have been unthinkable the last time the Games were staged in London in 1948, but on Tuesday a record crowd of 70,000 is expected for Britain's match against Brazil at Wembley Stadium.
Having won their opening group matches, both teams have qualified for the quarter finals and, with the pressure off, Britain's coach Hope Powell could hardly contain her excitement at the prospect of facing the gold medal favorites.
Powell, 45, who has coached England for 13 years, has long hoped for the day when women's soccer could grab the limelight and prove, in Britain at least, that it is, as she says, "a real sport that deserves to be recognized".
Her time has finally come.
Britain opened the Olympics when they beat New Zealand 1-0 last week, and qualified for the last eight with a 3-0 win over Cameroon. They now face a Brazilian team which includes Marta, the five-time World Player of the Year.
The match, which will decide who wins Group E, has captured the public's imagination. The crowd is expected to be a record for a women's international in Britain.
"Tomorrow will show women's football in the spotlight, 70,000 people will come out and support us," Powell said.
"The fact that we are playing at Wembley as GB (Britain) for the first time, hopefully in front of a record crowd as I'm sure it will be, is fantastic," she told reporters on Monday.
Britain's men have not played in the Olympics since 1960 and the women are making their first appearance at a Games.
Britain's absence from the tournament was mainly the result of fears from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland that their independence would be compromised within FIFA by playing together as Britain in the Games.
Once London was awarded the 2012 Games, however, the International Olympic Committee insisted Britain had to return to Olympic soccer, giving the women a chance to shine 16 years after the first women's soccer event was staged at a Games.
Powell believes the Games could be the catalyst she has long dreamed of, with the match against Brazil a gilt-edged opportunity to prove what women's soccer is all about.
"Yes, Brazil are highly ranked, have got to past Olympic finals, World Cups, the style in which they play is very similar to the men's," she said.
"The match does warrant the build up and the attention. We are looking forward to the challenge," adding that at times the entire Olympic experience bordered on the unreal.
"It's unique. It's a once in a lifetime opportunity. It is just mind-blowing. We have loved every minute."
But she is mindful of a job to be done - balancing the Olympic experience with the rigors of training and playing.
"We are really focusing on the competition. There is a game tomorrow. There is not really much time," she said. "You play, you rest, you train, you play. The turnaround is very quick."
Playing Brazil, who are chasing their first Olympic gold, represents Britain's biggest challenge to date.
"The good thing is we are in the quarter-finals no matter what," she said. "We are playing for a position to try and ensure we get an easier path. No game at this level is easy anyway ... It will certainly test us and we will gauge it to see how we do. That will give us the inspiration to push on."
(Editing by Matt Falloon)
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