LONDON: With the eyes of the world focused on London as the start of the summer Olympics edges ever closer, the Welsh capital of Cardiff is gearing up to host the first event of the entire Games two days before Friday's Opening Ceremony.
Britain and New Zealand's women's soccer teams start the chase for medals at the Millennium Stadium on Wednesday with between 35-40,000 fans expected for the 1500 GMT kickoff. Women's soccer in Britain rarely attracts crowds of more than 5,000 people.
The Olympic soccer tournaments, comprising 16 men's teams and 12 women's are too long to be accomodated within the Games timeframe and so have to start before the Opening Ceremony. LOCOG, the London organising committee, decided several years ago not to stage the opening soccer games in London because they did not want to take attention away from the official start of the Games on July 27. Cardiff got the nod ahead of Glasgow's Hampden Park. Welsh sporting hero Lynn Davies, winner of the Long Jump gold at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and now the president of UK Athletics, said there was a huge feelgood factor over the honour. "It's fantastic for Cardiff and for Wales that we are staging the first event of the Games, as Cardiff really is a city of sport" he said recently. "I understand women's football is one of our fastest growing sports and for them to play in front of a big crowd in the Olympics at the Millennium Stadium will be a fantastic motivation for everyone involved," he added. Cardiff is one of the six venues being used for Olympic soccer around Britain and is used to hosting huge sporting events. The city has embraced the Olympics too with London 2012 signs, flags, displays and bunting throughout the city centre. Eleven Olympic matches in both the men and women's competitions, including the men's bronze medal match on August 10, will be held there and Welshman Ryan Giggs, the captain of the men's team, says he is looking forward to playing in his home town against Uruguay on August 1. "I am looking forward to it enormously" the Manchester United player told reporters at Olympic Park. "To play in the Olympics in the city I was born in is something I could only dream of, and although the different FAs may have a view about the Olympics, we are all delighted to be taking part and want to win a medal," he said. Historically, the football associations of Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland have been opposed to the idea of a British soccer team fearing it could jeopardise their own international independence within FIFA, world soccer's governing body. Giggs says he has had nothing but positive feedback about Wales involvement with the Games, however. "Everyone I have met, whether they be Welsh, Irish, Scottish or English have wished us well. There has been no negativity whatsoever." Cardiff was the setting for the 1958 Empire Games, now the Commonwealth Games, is the home of Wales rugby and hosted six FA Cup finals between 2001 and 2006 while Wembley was being re-built in London. In 2009 it staged Test cricket for the first time. Although some tickets to the soccer competition were withdrawn after sluggish sales, LOCOG says around 250,000 have been sold so far for the matches in Cardiff with more sales expected. "At least three days will sell out," a spokesman said. "With one of those days being a double header, that means at least four matches at Cardiff should have capacity crowds of around 74,000 fans."