And that’s a wrap.
And that’s a wrap.
The curtain has fallen on the first act of the Women’s World Cup, a long and dramatic opening day that had it all.
With Commonwealth Stadium looking a dream for the opening match, blue skies, the sun beating down, and the red and white crowd streaming in, set to cheer for either Canada or China, the opening ceremony track belted out by Sarah McLachlan drew goosebumps. Tegan and Sara managed to notch it up even further and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one with a wobbly bottom lip and more than a few tears welling up as the fireworks shot up into the sky and colourful banners covered the crowd behind the goal.
The theatre built with a young girl being dropped off by her ‘soccer mom’ joining soccer drills throughout the opening songs, then she stole our hearts when she took the microphone to sing the theme song for the tournament, “To a Greater Goal”. As she ran off the stage, Mom was there for a hug and to bundle her back into the car. I was positively sobbing.
It was a hot day, hotter than most were accustomed to in Edmonton, and some of the concession stalls were out of beer by the second half of the first match. The queues to the many merchandise stands were 50 plus deep, and the gear is hot.
There’s loads of Canadian soccer gear of course… you can never own enough red soccer gear right? There was one China World Cup tee-shirt in a sea of Canada gear. There was nothing for sale for NZ or the Netherlands today so it will be interesting to see which countries will be featured at future venues.
Just a tip for football fans here in Canada, using Visa in your transaction (over $50 perhaps?) earns you $5 off. Visa surveyed a few of us after our purchase, checking World Cup sponsorship awareness, how we were finding the event so far (turns out ‘it’s amaaaaaazing’ was an appropriate answer) and what other incentives would we like to see at future events. Let’s just say if we ever see premium bathroom experiences for Visa card holders you guys have me to thank.
Turns out women’s football can be big business.
This was reportedly the largest crowd in Canadian sporting history. That seems kind of odd given the expanse of the stadium that lost some seats due to VIP seating and media tribunes, but we’ll take it.
Sinclair was certainly the jersey of choice around the stadium but there were plenty of signs that fans were brandishing for other heroes “Holy Schmidt” was my favourite, supporting Sophie who won the player of the match for Canada and worked all day.
The Canadian supporters’ group, the Voyageurs, were in full voice, brandishing various versions of the national flag. The few moments throughout the match that the Chinese supporters were audible in the stadium just lifted the Canadians a little higher.
Sitting among the friends and family who are normally the loudest contingent at Canadian matches overseas supporting their loved ones, I sensed that they enjoyed knowing the rest of the stadium would do that job for them today, and they could purely enjoy what was unfolding before their eyes.
Canada and China both started the match a little shakily. A few too many long passes which could easily be gathered by the keepers led to some redundant runs which became critical as the pitch became hotter. A few too many weak back passes were picked off, giving too many nervous moments at the back.
Canada had a few shots in the first 15 minutes off the back of surging Christine Sinclair runs deep in the attacking third. China really didn’t get a look in until the 22nd minute. A poor back pass from Lauren Sesselmann of Canada was intercepted and Desiree Scott lunged in desperation to contain the danger, earning herself a yellow card and conceding a dangerous free kick. Lisi Wang hit the free kick of her life, proving just how cruel football can be.
If there is a segment for near misses of the tournament, here’s my early favourite. The ball beat keeper Erin McLeod, slamming it off the left upright before traversing across the goal line off the right upright, and back into the field of play. It was to be the Chinese team’s only close call, with McLeod strong in front of goal throughout. She was generally well supported by her defence, with Josee Belanger and Kadeisha Buchanan particularly impressive, both in defusing China and building the offence from the back.
At the other end, Wang Fei was kept busy from the opening minutes. Both Sinclair and Schmidt pressed forward with strong runs and dangerous crosses in the first half. Credit to China who defended beautifully, cutting channels and adjusting to Canada’s ability to switch the play. It was as if they were tempting Canada to play the ball into the centre of the field where they would swarm in on Sinclair and block every option.
That’s the joy of watching Sinclair though – her ability to dance out of congestion and accelerate into space with the ball at her feet, laying off to a team mate at will is certainly the definition of good football. On the rare occasion she did turn over the ball (I counted twice in the match) it actually feels like a slight jolt to world order.
In one of the last plays of the first half, Canada were awarded a free kick maybe 30 feet out. Keeper McLeod advanced up the field to take it, and rather than floating it into the box, she drove it in hard on goal, becoming close to really rocking the stats. Has a keeper ever been the first to score in a World Cup? The ball was saved by a fumbling Wang and McLeod stayed out of the record books.
The second half seemed to lack the spark of the first. The heat was closing in, the black rubber on the pitch was reportedly becoming a little sticky despite watering it down and the aroma of gently smouldering rubber reached the first few rows of the packed stadium.
Chances on goal were light on and it wasn’t until both teams injected fresh legs into the game with 20 minutes to go that the game looked to break open.
China certainly didn’t look like they were going to win the game but it was starting to feel like they weren’t going to lose either.
Canada’s coach John Herdman moved to a more attacking formation of 3-4-3 with 15 minutes to go, seemingly freeing up Buchanan to get even more involved and feed quality balls into Sinclair and Schmidt. Sinclair took a shot that lacked heat but Wang did well to dive and save, and Schmidt blasted a ball just wide of the upright. Canada’s continual press forward resulted in what Herdman called in the press conference a ‘very brave decision’ by the referee, a penalty in the 92nd minute of the match with the scores at 0-0.
When the whistle for the penalty blew, Sinclair wandered away from the spot and Schmidt said in the press conference she was worried for a minute that Sinclair would not take it. “But Sincy came back, oh captain my captain, and stepped up to hit the perfect penalty kick.” She really did. With substitute goal keeper Karina LeBlanc signalling the crowd to stop the cheering and hollering, Sinclair’s penalty off the inside of the left post was unstoppable, and the result of hours and years of disciplined practice. Millimetre perfect.
So Canada took the lead and a minute later two teams left the field at opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. Canada had grasped the 3 points they desperately desired and China had let slip an incredibly disciplined performance and the opportunity to stay firmly in the race for Group A.
The Netherlands closed out the day with a 1-0 win over a talented but sometimes frustrated New Zealand team, confirming early predictions that Group A would be the closest group of the tournament, in stark contrast to some of the others.
Let the drama continue.