Powell puts England on map
© Foto-net

England have climbed mountains to reach the quarter-finals of the FIFA Women's World Cup.

Now, though, after beating France to a finals place and then qualifying for the last eight unbeaten - holding world champions Germany along the way - they must attempt to scale Everest. That is the measure of the task facing the 'Three Lionesses' when they lock horns with a twice-crowned USA side currently atop of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking and unbeaten in 50 games.

While fans may choose to point to the multi-functional qualities of engine-room stalwarts Fara Williams and Katie Chapman or the mouth-watering skills of Kelly Smith, England's ascent from nobodies in the women's game to genuine title contenders on the biggest stage of all is indebted to one woman: coach Hope Powell.

And genuine contenders is something which England certainly are, as USA coach Greg Ryan attests. "I'm not surprised by England at all," he said. "When anybody asked me before the tournament who were among our principal rivals for the title, I always mentioned them. England have a top side, one of the best in the world."

As is the case with every top side, a master tactician is required at its controls. In Powell, England have one of the finest in the history of women's football. When she became the national team's first full-time coach in 1998, she was tasked with transforming the fortunes of a squad languishing in the shadow of their male counterparts.

There is absolutely no doubt that the former international midfielder has passed this examination with flying colours. England's berth in the last eight of women's football's showpiece event, Powell's own place alongside Sir Bobby Charlton and George Best in English football's Hall of Fame, and the OBE that sits on her mantelpiece all pay testament to this.

Modestly, Powell prefers to deflect credit on to those around her for England's transformation. "It's not just about me," she told FIFA.com. "We have a fantastic backroom staff who have worked very hard to get us where we are today. Everybody is very committed. We all have the same goal and we all work hard together to achieve this. I think we have improved in many aspects, on the field and off it. One thing that I felt needed improving significantly when I took over was the fitness levels. We have achieved this. The players are in great shape."

They will need to be in Tianjin on Saturday. Standing in the way of England are a USA side whom Powell accepts are the big favourites to clinch a semi-final place. "The USA are a great side. They have been world and Olympic champions and we have to respect these facts. They are undoubtedly the favourites but we believe we can do it."

This belief has, in part, emanated from a 1-1 draw with the Americans in the Four Nations Tournament in China in January, when Rachel Yankey, Eniola Aluko and Kelly Smith sparkled and Alex Scott's second-half equaliser cancelled out Heather O'Reilly's opening goal. "We have come on a long way, grown as a team," added Powell, whose charges failed to get out of the group stage at the last UEFA European Championship in 2005. "The draw against them in January has given us a lot of confidence. We have shown that we can compete with the best teams in the world and we are confident that we can beat the USA on Saturday."

Willing them on will be a large contingent of fans watching from the comfort of their armchairs some 5,700 miles away. England's attack-conscious style and deserved progression to the last eight at China 2007 has earned women's football unprecedented attention back at home. Indeed, BBC1 will screen the match live (coverage begins from 12:45pm in England) and is expecting high viewing figures.

"It's absolutely fantastic that so many people have been following us," enthused Powell. "It's really, really encouraging, lovely that people back home are taking such an interest in us, watching how we get on. We came here wanting to do well and to play a bit, and hopefully we have done this. I hope we can please them further by beating the US."

It is not just their compatriots that the 'Three Lionesses' can count on for support, for they have endeared themselves to their Chinese hosts, who can be consistently found sporting England jerseys and heard chanting for the team at matches. "It's amazing. To have the Chinese supporting us so passionately really means a lot," said Powell. "A lot of it has to do with the Premier League, which is really popular here, but we'll take it (laughs). Their support is really appreciated and very encouraging."

The 40-year-old coach will be hoping this support helps spur her side to victory over USA in their first quarter-final appearance in the competition since 1995. Regardless of the outcome, English women's football is greatly indebted to Hope Powell.