Last night may just prove to be the major breakthrough for women's football in Britain that its players and coaches have been working so hard towards for years: 70,584 fans roared on Team GB at Wembley – a record crowd for a women's football match in this country, smashing the previous high of 29,000 – and an estimated hundreds of thousands more watched at home.
They witnessed a barnstorming victory over the tournament favourites Brazil, a result that catapults the hosts into a favourable quarter-final draw with Canada on Friday, and even throws up the tantalising prospect of a medal.
Goalscorer Steph Houghton captured the players' ecstasy at the final whistle – at both the stage and the result. "The whole day has just been fantastic," she said. "It's unbelievable and amazing. To play in front of 70,000 people, you couldn't dream of a better day."
She added: "There was no pressure on us because we knew we had qualified for the quarterfinals already. But now we are looking forward to Friday and we will just try to recover and then focus on that match."
Fellow GB player Ellen White said she was "so utterly proud of the girls tonight. What a performance at Wembley in front of 70,000!" Teammate Alex Scott joked: "Did that just happen?" GB forward Karen Carney added: "I think we showed you all [that] women can play football. I hope that everyone enjoyed watching."
The tournament has begun to capture the attention of the public, partly for Team GB's exploits – and the men's team must win their match against Uruguay tonight to stay in the competition – but also because of the presence of the Brazilian forward Marta, who is on the verge of becoming the first superstar of women's football. Wearing the Brazilian No 10 shirt made famous by Pele, her perfect balance and finishing skills have drawn comparison with Lionel Messi.
Those gathered at Wembley last night still got an idea of why Marta Vieira da Silva, 26, has been named World Player of the Year five times and has commanded wages of up to $500,000 a season. Even in football-mad Brazil, it is not easy for a girl to get the chance to develop the technical abilities that she possesses.
Simon Oliveira, of XIX Entertain-ment, who has advised David Beckham for the past eight years, believes that Marta, more than any other Brazilian sports star, has the opportunity to become the poster child for the South American nation over the next four years as it hosts both the World Cup and the Olympic Games.
"She has a great story and she's very charismatic," he said. "She's in as good a position as any Brazilian – male or female – to take control of that."
But Marta has so far failed to win the game's biggest honours. Brazil has never won the Women's World Cup and Marta has had to be content with the silver medal in the last two Olympics. Last night's defeat by Team GB leaves her team with a much trickier route through the competition if they are to progress to the final. Nonetheless, if Marta can use London 2012 to help Team GB fire the imagination of a new influx of women's football fans then sponsors will flock to her, as Brazil takes the sporting centre stage in the next four years.
Head to head: Marta vs Messi
Marta Vieira da Silva
Age 26, born 19 February 1986 in Dois Riachos, Alagoas, Brazil
Height 5ft 4in (1.63 m)
International Scoring Record 80 goals in 72 games
Earnings $255,000 per season
World honours Fifa Women's World Player of the Year five years running, two silvers from the 2004 and the 2008 Olympics and a World Cup runners-up medal
Age 25, born 24 June 1987 in Rosario, Argentina
Height 5ft 7in (1.69 m)
Weight 148 lbs
International Scoring Record 26 goals in 70 games
World honours Ballon d'Or three years in a row, 2008 Olympics gold medal.Reuse content