Can Sinclair pull ‘a Paolo Rossi’ at World Cup?

Soccer analyst James Sharman says the 2015 Women's World Cup has already deemed a success for Canada after advancing to the quarterfinals, and anything else is just gravy.

Enzo Bearzot, if he was alive today, could probably relate to what John Herdman is going through right about now.

Italy stumbled and laboured through the group stage of the 1982 World Cup in Spain, earning three draws and barely managed to qualify for the knockout round.

Before the tournament even started Bearzot, the legendary Azzurri manager, was crucified by the ravenous Italian media for his decision to include Paolo Rossi in his squad—the Juventus striker looked badly out of shape in the build-up to the World Cup after serving a two-year ban for his part in a match-fixing scheme (Rossi to this day denies he was involved). The criticisms grew even louder after Rossi contributed little and didn’t score a single goal through Italy’s first four games in Spain.

But Bearzot remained patient with Rossi and he was duly rewarded. The Juventus star repaid his manager’s faith by scoring a marvellous hat trick against Brazil en route to registering a tournament-high six goals as Italy won the World Cup for the first time since 1938. Rossi, the player few Italian supporters expected to come through in the clutch, became a national hero.

Unlike Rossi, Christine Sinclair has hardly been anonymous through the first four games of this FIFA Women’s World Cup. She scored from the penalty spot in injury time to lift Canada to victory over China, and she expertly controlled the ball before teeing it up for Josee Belanger to finish in Sunday’s Round-of-16 win against Switzerland. And nobody has suggested Sinclair is underserving of a starting role or her importance to this Canadian team.

But there have been persistent questions as to why Sinclair is not scoring goals or been as dominant like she used to earlier in her career. There’s been steady criticism of Sinclair who, it has to be said, has not been Canada’s best player at this tournament. Canada’s captain hasn’t been terrible. Far from it. But she has been average (at times slightly better than average) and a growing number of pundits who follow this team closely—including this correspondent—have said or written as much.

That’s rankled Herdman, who shot back following Sunday’s win over the Swiss in Vancouver and came to the defence of Sinclair.

“She doesn’t deserve to take stick,” Herdman declared said. “There’s some people out there who should ask themselves a question. She gives everything to this team, every single game.

“You put her in a different team, she’ll score 20 goals. Off the pitch, she’s the pride of our country and she’s going to stay that.

Sinclair’s offensive production has tapered off with the passage of time, and she is clearly not the same player she was just three years ago when she scored that memorable hat trick against the United States in the semifinals of the Olympic tournament in London.

There have been no suggestions that she doesn’t have a major role to play for Canada or that she shouldn’t be starting at this World Cup. She clearly does. She can still influence games, like she did against the Swiss. Nobody is questioning Sinclair’s efforts or commitment.

What there has been, though, is a stream of honest and pointed critiques of her standard of play at this World Cup, much like there was of Paolo Rossi in Spain 32 years ago.

Rossi, of course, proved the critics wrong, and went on a magical run that eventually lead to him becoming one of the most iconic figures in World Cup history. Nobody saw his offensive explosion coming. Nobody. There was no evidence from his group stage performances that he was going to come good.

But Rossi did, ripping apart what many still tout as the greatest Brazilian team of all-time, bagging a brace against Poland in the semifinals and then open the scoring against West Germany in the final. Bearzot was vindicated.

Like the legendary Italian manager, Herdman has staunchly defended Sinclair, and believes his captain will come out of her “slump” and provide Canada with the goals it needs to go deep in this tournament.

“At some point, Christine will do what we all expect Christine to do,” Herdman promised.

Is Christine Sinclair ready to pull “a Paolo Rossi” at this World Cup?

We’ll soon find out.

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