MANCHESTER, England -- The U.S. women's soccer team was already through to the Olympic quarterfinals, and when the Americans grabbed an early lead against North Korea on Tuesday, the focus shifted to the historic nature of the occasion more than anything. For the first time ever, Manchester United's Old Trafford -- a shrine of world soccer -- was hosting a women's international soccer game.
"It was awesome," said U.S. forward Abby Wambach, who scored her 141st international goal in the U.S.'s 1-0 victory, bringing her within 17 of Mia Hamm's all-time mark. "So many U.S. fans came for this game specifically to watch at Old Trafford. It's a dream come true for a lot of us, and it's amazing to have gotten a goal."
When U.S. midfielder Megan Rapinoe, a big European soccer fan, was subbed out to conserve energy for the quarterfinals, she marveled at the scene. "Just sitting [on the bench], you get to take in the whole stadium," she said. "It was absolutely beautiful."
The only other women's match that had ever taken place at Old Trafford was the 1989 women's FA Cup final, according to David Barber, the official historian of England's FA. That game, between Leasowe Pacific and Friends of Fulham, drew a crowd of 941. But 29,522 came for U.S.-North Korea, including Manchester United stars Javier (Chicharito) Hernández and Rio Ferdinand, the latter of whom even stopped by the U.S. locker room to give a pep talk before the game.
"I met Rio last year at a Manchester United event," said U.S. forward Alex Morgan, who set up Wambach's goal. "He's a big supporter of the women's game."
You can say that about more British citizens than ever these days. In fact, Tuesday was a watershed for women's soccer in the U.K. -- not only did Old Trafford host its first women's international, but London's Wembley Stadium drew 70,584 (an all-time record for women's soccer in this country) who saw Great Britain beat Brazil 1-0.
The quarterfinals are now set, with one side of the bracket featuring U.S.-New Zealand and Britain-Canada, and the other side having Brazil-Japan and Sweden-France. If you're a U.S. fan, you have to feel pretty good about your chances of reaching the final.
To get a sense of where women's soccer has been in British history, I visited the National Football Museum in Manchester on Tuesday (I highly recommend it to any soccer fan who visits the city). Included in the artifacts was plenty on the history of the women's game: red-and-blue striped caps and socks used with women's uniforms in the 1890s; photographs of women's teams from the World War I era, when they drew up to 53,000 for a match in Liverpool during a war-related hiatus in the men's game; and exhibits devoted to the British Ladies Football Club, which was started in 1894 by a group that was agitating for the right to vote.
However, women's soccer was banned by England's FA from 1921 to '71, due in part to perceived threats to the men's game and the idea that it wasn't lady-like. Even today, although England is besotted over men's soccer, the women's game has yet to draw the respect and attention that it gets in the U.S., Germany, Sweden, Japan and even France.
Now, maybe, that's finally changing. "Great Britain is putting themselves in a position to grow the game," said Wambach. "I'm proud to be here to be a part of it and to witness it."
It's hard not to look forward to a potential Olympic semifinal between the U.S. and Great Britain, one that might even sell out Old Trafford. One thing's for sure: Tuesday was a red-letter day for women's soccer in the Olympic host country.