Canada's Women's World Cup opener gives hope, anxiety to host's fans
When the FIFA Women’s World Cup began on Saturday in Edmonton, Canada was ready. Ready to unabashedly support the Canadian women’s national team, which has stolen our hearts and deserves our unwavering support.
Despite the drama that emerged in the women’s game leading up to the World Cup in Canada, this is the chance for our women to go out on home turf (literally) and go for glory. In a week that saw countless allegations and stories of FIFA embroiled in scandal after scandal after ridiculous scandal, fans of women’s football are hoping the press will refocus its energies and airtime as the best in women’s football from around the world face off. Germany and United States may be pre-tournament favorites to win, but according to Canada’s coach, John Herdman, the tournament is “more wide open than it’s ever been.”
I watched the game in Montreal, unfamiliar with the surroundings. A friend asked around to find out who would be showing the opening Canada vs. China match. First, however, we joined the crowds watching the Champions League final, with its predictable result. We ventured out in matching Barca jerseys, two Muslim women who do not normally frequent pubs but enjoyed ourselves tremendously in the festive crowd. But I wondered whether this crowd would stay and commit for the women’s game.
There wasn’t much time between the games, but we went home and quickly changed into red and white. The closest pub was fairly empty. We settled in and saw the TVs on for the pre-game performances and opening ceremonies. But the volume was off. I was too nervous to make a fuss, so I focused on eating frites. But just before the 6 p.m. (local time) kickoff, the small Irish pub blasted the volume, and off we went!
Within 20 minutes, the bar started to get quite full. Mostly with men. A staff member told me that at 7:15 p.m. one of the screens would have to show the NHL game. After all, this was Canada during the Stanley Cup finals. I raised my eyebrows at him. “Just one TV,” he said kindly, and assured me that Canadian women's supporters could have the other four.
As the match went on, I grew increasingly frustrated with the unfinished chances of the Canadians. The defense was working too hard. On more than one occasion I screamed with terror due to certain plays, reckless pass-backs and reckless fouls by my sheroes. But goalkeeper Erin McLeod held her ground. This was her house. Still, in the second half, I felt they were playing flat and tired. Still, the tenacity of Kedeisha Buchanan and Sophie Schmidt relentless efforts (voted Player of the Match) completely took my breath away. Not that I could breathe due to the 0-0 scoreline.
And I wasn’t the only one. The mostly-male crowd was as into the match as we were. The fellow sitting beside me became quite animated in shouting psuedo-technical directions to the players. “Yeah, yeah, pass it...ahhhhhh. NO! BAD MOVE!” He was as concerned and frustrated as I was. As the clocked ticked, too quickly, I began to bury my head in my hands. I prayed that God Almighty would hear my supplications and JUST GIVE THEM A GOAL.
Why wasn’t Christine Sinclair effortlessly heading the balls into the back of the net? Why was Melissa Tancredi not bringing the ball up more? Why couldn’t Jonelle Filigno get forward more ferociously? Why was McLeod being forced to play so hard, and why were we passing back so self-consciously? Why was recently recovered Lauren Sesselmann making so many rookie errors?
We had to win our first match on home soil. This was our house, our time. Over a billion people were expected to watch this World Cup. This match, at Commonwealth Stadium, was the largest home crowd for any Canadian national team game in any sport, with over 53,000 spectators. Canadians all over the country, were watching and hoping. My friend kept patting my arms in comfort. She had become as emotionally invested as I was. Canada had outshot China 14-5 and is ranked eighth in the world to China’s 16. This was not the result I wanted. This was not the result Canada needed.
Suddenly in extra time, the improbable: Adriana Leon was taken down in the box by China’s Rong Zhao. Ukrainian official Natalia Rachynska, who until then had annoyed me by constantly being in the path of play, awarded Canada a penalty kick. OH MY GOD. I was going to melt from anxiety. Ninety prior minutes of hopes and expectations just manifested and I clenched my fists in anticipation.
Christine Sinclair stood in front of the net. The entire bar stood still. You could hear a pin drop–except for that one TV with the faint sounds of distant hockey game.
Sincy stepped forward. Low. Left. Corner. Obviously she put it in. The bar exploded with joy! All the gruff hockey-loving men leapt to their feet and shouted and clapped. Then they sat down and started watching the hockey game.
I was exhausted and so was my friend. I knew to expect some online commentary on what would be labeled “home advantage” or “a dubious call.” But at the end of the day, the captain stepped up. She is Canada’s shero. We love this team. And we won. I breathed a huge sigh of relief. And I will prepare until they play again.
Shireen Ahmed is a writer, public speaker and sports activist focusing on Muslim women in sports. Her work has been featured and discussed in The Globe and Mail, Jezebel, VICE Sports, Islamic Monthly, Huffington Post, Best Health Magazine, Muslim Voices, Women Talk Sports, espnW and Edge of Sports Radio. Her blog is “Tales from a Hijabi Footballer.” She is currently working on her first book and lives in Toronto, Canada, with her family. She can be followed on Twitter @_shireenahmed.