As the dancers went through their tightly-choreographed motions during the opening ceremonies of the Women’s World Cup, the FIFA world feed commentators went down the list of nations to watch in the tournament.
He listed the Americans, French, and Germans as the favourites. Then, he talked about England and the Netherlands as being in that second group behind the big three. He talked about Australia or one of the Asian nations being a possible dark horse.
Not a mention of Canada, the No. 5-ranked nation in the women’s soccer world.
When the latest odds were released, Canada was not in the bookies’ lists of top-10 favourites to win the tournaments.
Again, Canada was ranked No. 5 in the world before the tournament began. Five.
When it comes to women’s soccer, Canadian fans see a program that’s won two Olympic bronze medals and is led by the superhuman Christine Sinclair, who should soon have the title of being the most prolific international goal-scorer in the women’s game.
But that’s not the rest of the world sees. To take a page from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, if there was a global entry about the Canadian women’s soccer program, it would read: “Mostly Harmless.”
What the world sees is a country that has a history of underachieving at the World Cup. There was the World Cup we hosted, and where we bowed out in quarter-finals. There was the 2011 World Cup, where Canada didn’t win a game and Sinclair’s goal against Germany, scored while her nose was busted, was the only time one of our players bulged the back of the net.
And, internationally, the World Cup means a lot more than the Olympics. It’s not close. World Cups are where your program is validated, not the Olympics. That stereotype carries over from the men’s game — where the Olympics is nothing more than a glorified youth tournament.
So, while the bronze medals are desperately important to Canadian soccer fans, the world of international soccer sees them as little more than glorified consolation ribbons handed out in World Cup off-years.
How does Canada turn this around, starting Monday in Montpelier against Cameroon? They have to shake the image of a team that can only win 1-0 at the biggest stage. One goal in three games at the 2011 World Cup. Four goals in five games at the 2015 World Cup. In the previous two cycles, only two Canadian goals have been scored by a player not named Christine Sinclair.
This year, the signs aren’t super encouraging. In eight games the women’s team has played this season, it has scored more than a goal only twice. Sweden, Spain and Iceland have recorded clean sheets against the Canadians.
It’s a lot to ask teenage sensation Jordyn Huitema to be the next one, already. So, the most important players at this tournament may be Janine Beckie, Nichelle Prince and Adriana Leon, the experienced forwards on the roster who have to give Sinclair support.
Beckie was the most surprising omission from the 2015 team, as then-coach John Herdman favoured striker Melissa Tancredi — who was coming back from a break to finish her schooling and wasn’t near 100 per cent — and attacking midfielder Diana Matheson, whose knee injury limited her availability.
Now, it’s Beckie’s mission to give the opposing nations more to think about than only Sinclair. The Manchester City player needs to be a dynamic option. So far in 2019, she’s scored only once for Canada, and added an assist. She can be a creator as much as she can be finisher, and she can often create openings for teammates.
Prince can get behind defences and Leon has a natural scorer’s knack of finding dead spaces in the final third. But, in four appearances so far in 2019, no goals.
Leon has been used as a super-sub so far in 2019, with just three appearances totaling 78 minutes. Look for her to be called in to provide late sparks in close games.
If Beckie, Prince, and Leon can’t offer secondary scoring, Canada will continue its string of World Cup disappointments.
And, if Canada wants to be rated, if this program truly wants to be feared, it needs a long World Cup run. Olympic success is wonderful, but in terms of international perception, performing at the World Cup is far, far more important. And valuable.