Can the Canadian women make some noise in France?
Photo: Richard Budman, CC by 2.0
If asked to name a football team who’ve dominated their competition for the past quarter-century, you might need a minute. Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain are newly risen. Bayern Munich and Juventus still have work to do to make it to a decade. You might settle on Celtic but Rangers were right there with them ten years ago. Not even Real Madrid meet the criterion despite winning four of the past six Champions Leagues. The only squad who does is the United States Women’s National Team.
Seven Women’s World Cups are in the books. The USWNT won three and lost another final to Japan on penalties. They finished third in every other tournament. When the eighth tournament kicks off this weekend in France, they will again be the team to beat.
On the one hand, their dominance shows what the American men might achieve if their overly abundant financial resources and talent pool weren’t focused on other sports. On the other, a strong footballing culture can take nations far. As more investment pours into the women’s game, other nations are catching up to the Americans.
As you might expect, UEFA dominates the FIFA rankings. European teams claim half the top ten spots and 16 of the first 25. That said, there are powers from other continents. China, Japan and Australia all field powerful teams. Brazil hasn’t the legacy in the women’s game it does in the men’s but is a force nonetheless. Nor is the United States the lone power in North America. The Canadian women’s team is ranked fifth in the world going into this tournament and, given the Great White North's reputation as a puck's haven, their football nous is catching the world by surprise.
While their best World Cup finish was reaching the quarterfinals as host nation in 2015, Canada has improved markedly in the four years since.
Hiring former Danish women’s coach Kenneth Heiner-Moeller has much to do with their ascension. The Dane gained a reputation for intensity after accusing the Chinese of spying at the 2007 World Cup. He came on board as an assistant in 2015, assuming the top job in 2018.
While he’s been with the team, they’ve enjoyed remarkable success at the Algarve Cup, an invitational tournament third in prestige only to the World Cup and Olympics. Canada won the competition in 2016 and finished third this year, defeating Sweden on penalties.
Canada can’t claim the depth of the US squad but still fields a strong team. Kadeisha Buchanan and Christine Sinclair share the country’s Player of the Year honours.
Buchanan won the Young Player of the Tournament award at the 2015 World Cup. The 23-year-old defender joined Olympique Lyonnais in 2017, playing an important role in the club’s ongoing Champions League dynasty.
Sinclair captains the squad. The 35-year-old forward plays her club football with Portland Thorns in the NWSL. She is entering her fifth World Cup. Internationally, Sinclair is on 181 goals. Four more will make her the most prolific scorer for country regardless of gender.
Other notables in Heiner-Moeller’s squad include goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe and veteran midfielders Sophie Schmidt and Desiree Scott. The Canadian midfield is stacked. Youngsters Jessie Fleming  and new Manchester City signing, Janine Beckie  turn heads with their attacking play.
With this generally acknowledged as the strongest Canadian team in the country’s history, Sinclair is excited to be entering what will probably be her final World Cup.
I think my time on the national team has been a rollercoaster, a journey, ups and downs, and I can honestly say I’ve been waiting my entire career for this team. We are so much more talented than we ever have been. If you combine that with what makes us Canadian, our hard work and grit, it excites me.
The tournament represents a challenge for Sinclair and her teammates. In descending order, Germany, England and France are the three clubs ranked between Canada and the United States. Each of them will feel far more at home in a tournament on European soil, especially the hosts. Reaching the winner’s podium would be a stunning achievement although the gaffer isn’t putting it beyond his troops.
We are going there to win it, but we have been very good at taking things one step at a time. We didn’t look beyond the Algarve Cup and we didn’t look beyond matches against England or Spain; we only looked at what was right in front of us. Right now, there are three group matches in front of us and we are focused very clearly on Cameroon, New Zealand and Netherlands.
Both he and his captain struck a similar theme, stressing focus and hard work. With the talent at their disposal, those qualities may take Canada where they want to go.