World Cup proves Canada not just a hockey nation

Christine Sinclair. (Marc Grandmaison/CP)

Millions of fans, memorable performances, dramatic games and a final we won’t soon forget—the FIFA Women’s World Cup had it all.

Now that it’s over, it’s time to reflect on how Canada welcomed the world. Here are my thoughts and observations on the tournament.

Canada embraces World Cup

The idea that Canada is a hockey nation is one of this country’s great sporting mistruths. Not because Canadians don’t love hockey—they do. But the idea of Canada being a hockey nation is misleading because it suggests that’s all we are. We’re more than that. We’re a sports nation, and we love spectacles and big events. That point was driven home with this World Cup. Over 1.3 million people attended the 52 games, making it one of the most successful multi-sport events to ever take place in this country. Consider this: Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals drew a TV rating of 2.62 million in Canada; the England-Canada quarterfinal drew an audience of 3.8 million. A women’s soccer game drew a larger TV rating than each and every game of the Stanley Cup final. Just think about that for a second. Yes, we love hockey, and it will always be the national obsession. But we’re more than just a hockey nation. Much more.

Did Canada succeed?

There is an ongoing debate in the Canadian soccer community as to whether Canada had a successful World Cup on the pitch. Critics argue they didn’t—the Reds had an easy path to the semifinals and ended up losing to England, a team it used to regularly beat. Reaching the final eight is hardly anything to celebrate. But, in fact, Canada did have a successful World Cup. Think about where this team was just four years ago—they finished dead last at the World Cup in Germany. To go from that to a quarterfinal appearance is a major accomplishment for Canada who, it should also be noted, had not won a World Cup knockout game since 2003. Furthermore, this tournament will have inspired a generation of Canadian girls to take up the game, much like the 2002 FIFA U-19 World Cup staged in Canada did. These youngsters will be future members of the Canadian national team. That’s how the success rate of this tournament should be judged from a Canadian perspective.

16 magical minutes

The final promised to be a tight affair. The U.S. posted five consecutive clean sheets and had not conceded a goal since it’s opening match. Japan proved to be incredibly efficient, winning all of itd games by one goal. But the Americans stormed out of the gate, scoring four goals in the first 16 minutes of the match, with Carli Lloyd bagging a hat trick. Let’s not forget this wasn’t some minnow nation the U.S. tore apart—this was Japan, the reining World champions and Olympic silver medalists. That magical 16-minute run was one of the most memorable spans in World Cup history, and propelled the U.S. to their first title in 16 years.

U.S. deserved winners

The U.S. can be an easy team to dislike. Abby Wambach and Hope Solo aren’t exactly endearing athletes—their off-the-field antics make them easy targets for derision. And the Americans certainly didn’t set the tournament on fire with their laboured performances through the first four matches. But the U.S. peaked at the right time, going from strength to strength as the knockout round progressed, and received standout performances from Carli Lloyd, Becky Sauerbrunn and Megan Rapinoe. This was far from the best U.S. team of all-time, but it still found a way to win. The Americans’ amazing resolve might rankle jealous Canadian fans, but it’s why the U.S. deserved to win this tournament.

Closing of the gap

Any concerns that the expansion of the World Cup from 16 to 24 teams proved to be unfounded. Save for three group stage blowouts (most notably, Germany’s 10-0 destruction of Ivory Coast) this was a very competitive tournament. Newcomers Switzerland, the Netherlands and Cameroon showed well by qualifying for the second round. Australia finally won a knockout stage game by upsetting mighty Brazil, and came close to eliminating Japan in the quarterfinals. England was a third-tier team four years ago, and it shows how far they’ve come since then that they were able to beat host Canada in the quarterfinals, come achingly close to eliminating Japan in the semifinals and end the tournament by defeating the No. 1–ranked Germans to finish third. This isn’t women’s hockey, where the U.S. and Canada dominate and everyone else is fighting for table scraps. Women’s soccer is far more competitive. The gap between the elite teams and the second-tier nations has closed.

My tournament all-star team

Goalkeeper: Nadine Angerer (Germany).
Defenders: Lucy Bronze (England), Julie Johnston (United States), Becky Sauerbrunn (United States) and Megan Klingenberg (United States).
Midfielders: Amandine Henry (France), Lauren Holiday (United States), Carli Lloyd (United States) and Megan Rapinoe (United States).
Forwards: Celia Sasic (Germany) and Anja Mittag (Germany).

Tournament MVP

Carli Lloyd—The American midfielder scored a tournament-leading six goals and, crucially, scored when it mattered the most—she recorded the first hat trick in the history of the Women’s World Cup final, and also scored in the Round of 16, quarterfinals and semifinals.

Unsung hero

Becky Sauerbrunn—Easily the best defender in the tournament. The American formed an outstanding partnership with fellow central defender Julie Johnston and anchored a defence that kept five consecutive clean sheets and conceded just three goals.

Best goalkeeper

Nadine Angerer—Yes, Hope Solo recorded more shutouts and won the Golden Glove award. But the German goalkeeper made a number of big saves in crucial moments to help her country fight its way through to the semifinals.

Best young player

Kadeisha Buchanan—The Canadian defender played with a level of maturity and poise you don’t often see from 19-year-olds. Buchanan was a bulwark in the Canadian back line, and showed glimpses of why she could one day be the best defender in the women’s game.