Canada open women’s World Cup in scandal-free zone

Canada's Kadeisha Buchanan shows off her skills during training in Edmonton as she prepares to face China. Picture: AP
Canada's Kadeisha Buchanan shows off her skills during training in Edmonton as she prepares to face China. Picture: AP
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CANADA coach John Herdman pretty much summed up the prevailing sentiment when he was asked what he was looking forward to most about the Women’s World Cup.

“Winning,” Herdman said.

Join the crowd, coach.

Canada, ranked No 8 in the world, open women’s football’s premier tournament with a group-stage match against China tonight in Edmonton, one of the six Canadian cities hosting the month-long tournament. The final is on 5 July in Vancouver.

Twenty-four teams are competing this year, up from 16 that took part in the 2011 tournament in Germany. Japan won that one on penalties in a memorable final against the United States.

The Americans, ranked No 2, are among the favourites, along with top-ranked Germany and third-ranked France. The US women are in Group D, the so-called Group of Death that includes upstarts Australia, Sweden and their former US coach, Pia Sundhage, and perennial African champions Nigeria.

Group D opens with a match between the USA and Australia in Winnipeg on Monday, but probably the most anticipated game of the group stage is the showdown between the US and Sweden next Friday. It pits Sundhage against former assistant Jill Ellis, who took over the US team last spring.

The players, many of whom played for Sundhage, were keeping their perspective on the match.

“It’s just another game for us, it’s just another in the group round,” said US defender Meghan Klingenberg. “We’re not looking at it as the Group of Death or the easiest group, or whatever it is. We’re just looking at it as a game we have to win because we want to be on the podium at the end of this tournament.”

The women’s game and the World Cup have not really been touched by the scandal-rocking Fifa.

The only tell-tale sign of its impact came when Fifa secretary general Jerome Valcke withdrew from the tournament’s opening news conference in Vancouver. He was replaced by Tatjana Haenni, Fifa’s deputy director of the competitions division and head of women’s football.

At the news conference, Canadian Soccer Association president Victor Montagliani was asked if there were any improprieties associated with Canada’s bid for the event – a reflection of the corruption allegations facing Fifa as a whole. The question was a bit amusing because Canada was the only country that bid. Zimbabwe withdrew.

The tournament has its own controversies, however. It is the first senior World Cup, for the men or women, to be held on artificial turf. That hasn’t gone down well with many players, who believe artificial turf exacerbates injuries and changes the way the ball moves. US forward Abby Wambach led a group of players who filed a legal challenge last autumn, alleging gender discrimination, because the men’s World Cup is always played on real grass. They withdrew their action earlier this year when it became clear it wouldn’t be considered before the event.

This is also the first Women’s World Cup that will use goal-line technology aimed at taking the guesswork out of the referee’s hands when it comes to those critical goal/not-goal questions.

The Hawk-Eye system trains seven cameras on each goal. If there is a score, a signal is transmitted to a watch worn by each match official.

Goal-line technology was also used in the men’s World Cup last year in Brazil. That system was provided by the German company GoalControl.

So what spurred technology’s intrusion into the “beautiful game?” The 2010 World Cup. A shot by England’s Frank Lampard in the second round against Germany was clearly over the line, but disallowed. That goal would have tied it 2-2. Instead Germany won 4-1.

Several stars have announced that this will be their final World Cup, including Japan’s Homare Sawa, who is playing in her sixth – a record among women and men.

German goalkeeper Nadine Angerer also said she is retiring after this year. Wambach is likely to hang up her boots – although she may stick around for the 2016 Olympics.

“We have stars like Alex Morgan and Sydney Leroux and Megan Rapinoe who are going to continue on for many years on this team. And, hopefully, I’m going to be riding out off into the sunset with a World Cup championship,” Wambach said. “For me it would be an amazing thing to be able to leave this team on a high note and know that it’s in good hands with those players.”