FIFA Women’s World Cup: The Canadian Experience
Heading in with high hopes, but Striking Disappointment
Every four years since its original launch in 1991, twenty-four national female soccer teams compete in the FIFA Women’s World Cup. The women battle their way through group matches, a knockout phase, quarter and semi-finals and, finally, the final. All with the hope of winning the tournament. Although many teams’ journeys end earlier than they would like, making it to the World Cup is an incredible achievement and exciting experience. As Canadian women’s soccer team head coach, Kenneth Heiner Moeller, stated (in a quote from the women’s national team’s website) “ It is so special to play in a FIFA Women’s World Cup. You don’t get this moment back.” Each tournament is full of astonishing records, disappointing defeats, surprising outcomes and memorable moments. The eighth Women’s World Cup, held this year in France, was no exception. Soccer fans from around the world quickly became captivated by all of the excitement, controversy and action of this month long sporting tournament.
Since their first World Cup appearance in 1995, the Canadian women’s soccer team has significantly improved in skill and technique, obtaining multiple victories including being back-to-back bronze medalists in both the 2012 and 2016 Summer Olympics and two-time winners of the CONCACAF Championships in 1998 and 2010. As a result, the team has not only become a strong force to compete against, but has also earned an international fifth-place ranking, an impressive accomplishment which Christine Sinclair has stated (in an online CBC article) is “a remarkable achievement for Canada and this group of players.”
With this success and a tremendous amount of national support behind them, the Canadian women’s soccer team is headed into their seventh World Cup with high hopes for advancing past both the group matches and the round of 16 (knockout phase) in order to improve from their best tournament outcome in 2003, when they finished fourth. Energy, experience and positivity fueled the team to a strong record-breaking beginning in the World Cup tournament.
On June 10, the Canadian women’s soccer team played its first game against the 46th ranked Cameroon, and fellow group E member in Montpellier France. After an impressive goal by defender Kadeisha Buchanan near the end of the first half of gameplay, Canada pulled into an early lead. While Canada played the remainder of the game defensively strong, maintaining 74 per cent possession, the attacking side faltered, unable to push through Cameroon’s strong defense, demonstrated by the lack of any additional goals. Luckily, Canada’s single goal held out and was enough to give the Canadian women a 1-0 victory over Cameroon and their first win in this World Cup Tournament.
Five days later, on June 15, the Canadian women played their second game of the group match phase against the 19th ranked New Zealand squad in Grenoble, France. Similar to their first game, the team played strong, not only by dominating possession once again at 70 per cent, but also by scoring two goals in the second half.
Although Team Canada had at least 12 opportunities for goals within the first half – including headers from Buchanan, Sophie Schmidt and Captain Christine Sinclair – these attempts were all successfully blocked. Despite the match’s slow start excitement rose in the 48th minute when Canadian midfielder Jessie Fleming (assisted by forward Nichelle Prince) launched the ball into the net to break the current deadlock. 31 minutes later, after some unfortunate misses, the Canadian women scored their second goal of the match when Prince kicked in Sinclair’s rebound shot. With only 11 minutes of gameplay, plus four minutes of stoppage time remaining, Team Canada maintained its lead resulting in a significant 2-0 victory over New Zealand. Not only does this mark the strongest start to a World Cup tournament the team has ever had with two straight wins, but it is also the team’s first time defeating a regional champion. As a result, the Canadian woman advanced past the group stage and earned themselves a guaranteed spot in the round of 16.
Unfortunately, despite the team’s impressive start, its success – along with the hope of advancing past the round of 16 – greatly diminished during its next two tournament matches.
On June 20 in Reims, France, the women’s team played its last game of the group match phase and experienced their first tournament setback after a tough game against the 8th-ranked Netherlands. Although the two teams have faced each other multiple times in the past, with Canada always finishing on top, this previous experience did little to help the Canadian women during their World Cup match.
While coach Moeller credited his team (in an online Sportsnet article) for its “explosive start”, he stated that the women’s major fault was that they “lost the ball too often and too early” as demonstrated by a more evenly divided match possession percentage between the two sides. As a result, the Netherlands controlled gameplay forcing the Canadians to scramble chasing after the ball.
Although Sinclair (assisted by midfielder, Ashley Lawrence) tied the game just six minutes after the Netherland’s first goal with an unstoppable crossbar shot, Sinclair’s goal didn’t hold out for long. The Netherlands pulled back into the lead just 15 minutes later when Lineth Beerensteyn scored. Despite a great effort and a few close attempts, the Canadian women were unable to score again resulting in their first tournament loss, as well as a second-place finish overall in their group.
Though this loss was extremely disappointing for the team, especially after their record-breaking start, instead of dwelling on the upsetting defeat the team members focused on preparing for their next match against 9th ranked Sweden. According to coach Moeller, who stated during a post-game conference (to Sportsnet article) the game against the Netherlands was a good, “wake-up call” because it presented the team with important lessons they could learn and improve from moving forward in this World Cup tournament. A similar attitude was expressed by Lawrence (as per the Toronto Sun article), that her teammates and herself were putting an effort towards “improving on the little things because it is all about the minor details.”
Team Canada also likely felt confident facing Sweden as their next opponent, based on previous training and victories. As Moeller emphasized prior to the game (as reported by the Canadian Press article) there had been a focus within the women’s training to be “the most adaptable system in the world and more or less take the shape of water.” As a result, he felt confident that the women would be “ready to adapt” [to] whatever structure … [or] system” they faced.
Furthermore, the two teams had previously faced each other in two major sporting events at the 2012 Summer Olympics, where they tied 2-2. More recently, the teams played in the Algarve cup this past March where Canada beat Sweden 6-5 in an intense penalty shootout to finish in third place. Though Canada beat Sweden in these two previous occasions, in order for Canada to have similar success again the women would need to bring and leave everything they had on the field during the game. Unfortunately, while the women undoubtedly played their best in the match, it was not enough to defeat the strong and even more focused Swedish women’s team.
On June 24 in Parc Des Princes, in front of a crowd of over 38,000 people, the Canadian woman played Sweden in an extremely intense match. Just one minute into the match Canada had the chance to take an early lead with a penalty kick, when Swedish defender Desiree Van Lunteren tripped midfielder Janine Beckie. However, because this move actually occurred just outside of the penalty area, Canada only got a free kick which unfortunately didn’t produce a goal.
Throughout the first half both teams were unable to break through the other side’s defense, even with Canada’s higher possession percentage (61 to 39) resulting in a nil-nil tie at the halfway point. However, ten minutes into the second half, Sweden took the lead when striker, Kosovare Asllanni, broke away from Canada’s defense, a maneuver which significantly exposed ( according to an online CBC Sports article) the “lack of speed and awareness at the … Canadian backline.” Attempting to help the defense, Canadian goalkeeper, Stephanie Labbe, came forward out of her net, an unfortunate mistake, which provided another Swedish striker, Stina Blackstenius, the opportunity to slip the ball straight past Labbe into the net.
This goal significantly changed the course of the game. According to Schmidt (as recorded in an online Toronto Sun article) after Blackstenius’ goal “it was tough to get back because [the Swedish team’s] energy rose and their confidence increased … [and it became] an uphill battle for us.”
Roughly forty minutes later, Team Canada was given a chance to tie the match with a penalty kick Janine Beckie, stepped up to take the pressured filled shot. While she had a strong and well-aimed shot, it was blocked by the Swedish goalkeeper, Helvig Lindahl who made what Sinclair has called (in an online Canadian Press article) a “world-class save.” Although many people have questioned why Beckie took the penalty shot instead of Sinclair, it was a strategic choice. Sinclair offered Beckie the penalty kick because her own penalty kick had been blocked by Lindahl during the Algarve Cup.
With 21 minutes plus 8 minutes of stoppage time remaining, the Canadian woman frantically tried to catch up. Although these women maintained great defense, preventing the Swedes from scoring any further goals, they couldn’t find a solid opportunity to score, resulting in a heartbreaking 1-0 loss.
Such an early departure from the World Cup tournament is extremely disappointing and frustrating, because as Sinclair said (as reported by the Canadian Press) “we played so well and we definitely had the team to go deeper in this tournament.”
At the same time, the women are pleased with their overall performance. As Labbe expressed (as reported by the Canadian Press article), “you can’t fault the passion … the grit and the heart that the girls left out there on the field. To the final moment, we are pushing for a chance.” A similar attitude is evidently expressed from Schmidt (quoted in an online Toronto Sun article), “we had a solid performance and left it all out there.” Unfortunately, while there was some moments in the last two matches, when the women came close to scoring, as Schmidt further explains, “close isn’t good enough” to achieve victory.
Moving forward there’s a hope that this group of women will stay together, but this may be the last World Cup for some of the team’s older players such as Schmidt, Desiree Scott, Alyssa Chapman and Sinclair. However, though Sinclair will be forty in the next World Cup in 2023, she is not yet ready to retire. Sinclair has stated that her appearance in a sixth World Cup depends on whether coach Moeller wants her around, but given his response (as reported by the Canadian Press article) that he is “trying to convince her. . . [to] stay a few more years,” it is likely that Sinclair will not only lead the Canadian women’s soccer team to a few more victories in the near future before retirement, beginning with the quickly approaching 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, but will also continue to chase after and surpass Abby Wombach’s current international record of most goals scored.
Despite an early heartbreaking World Cup elimination, this experience has presented the Canadian women’s soccer team with a few areas, such as offense, that they can work towards improving to ensure a longer and more successful performance in their next World Cup.