The Women's World Cup started with a thunderous bang for Canada, as Christine Sinclair scored a tremendous goal to break the Germans' shutout streak after breaking her nose. It ended with a whimper Tuesday, with sixth-ranked Canada's 1-0 loss to 27th-ranked Nigeria interrupted by power failures and technical problems. A tournament that started with so much promise on display in a 2-1 loss to second-ranked Germany went downhill quickly for the Canadians, who were eliminated after a 4-0 thumping by France and left on an uninspiring note with a poor performance against Nigeria. Their total stats: three matches, zero points, one goal (that one by Sinclair, seen above adjusting her face mask during Tuesday's game), four shots, seven goals against, and two losses to lower-ranked teams.
This performance is going to raise plenty of questions at home, as this Canadian team was widely seen as a quietly-promising squad, so much so that some newspapers' editorial boards declared "a place on the podium is in our sights". (Whether that's reasonable or not is up for debate, as most Canadian soccer fans would probably have admitted before the tournament that Canada in its current iteration is not the third-best team in the world, but even the realists had hopes of getting out of the group stage.) Granted, Canada didn't get an easy draw, facing perhaps the most dominant team in the world in Germany (winners of the last two World Cups; a German shot on the Canadian goal is pictured below right), a very good French team and a quietly dangerous Nigerian squad, but the performance they delivered was far below even what the most pessimistic would have imagined.
It's worth noting that Tuesday's loss doesn't necessarily mean much, as "playing for pride" is a bit of an antiquated concept at the elite level. However, given the way they were ran off the pitch against France, the onus was on this Canadian squad to prove that they were capable of more. They didn't, though; Nigeria outclassed the Canadians for most of the match, displayed superior ball movement and created more chances, and the suspect Canadian defending that cost them heavily against France was in full evidence again. Even a Canadian win wouldn't have silenced the critics, and nor should it have, but another painful loss in this kind of fashion demonstrates that there are serious issues with this team. Those will have to be fixed before Canada hosts the next Women's World Cup in 2015, or that tournament may be even more disappointing.
For many, the blame for this showing will start and stop with head coach Carolina Morace, an unconventional Italian who remade the team in her image (and was widely praised for it only a few weeks ago). Morace encouraged the Canadians to play a possession-oriented style that delivered great moments of brilliance like the goal by Sinclair, but also spectacular failures. Given her feuds with the Canadian Soccer Association and her unpopular decision to have the team train in Italy for the last several months, this kind of a performance in a World Cup might be the end of her reign.
There are further factors at play than just Morace, though, and many of them are out of her control. For one thing, yes, Canada had great success in women's soccer before Morace showed up, but part of that was thanks to being an early adopter. Women's soccer programs have been huge in Canada for decades, and Canadian businesses and levels of government were willing to invest in the women's game long before their counterparts in many other countries. Elite women's soccer was slower to rise in many countries, but more and more are jumping on the bandwagon all the time, increasing funding, providing better facilities and coaching and just generally caring more about the women's game than they have in the past. As Canada's found out in other sports such as biathlon and softball, it's much easier to do well when there are only a few countries well-equipped to compete with you. The growing popularity of women's soccer is great for the world, but it makes life more difficult for the Canadian team.
However, perhaps the biggest issue is with player development, something that's also a problem on the men's side. As former men's national team defender and current CBC analyst Jason de Vos has pointed out before, the Canadian model has serious issues. deVos looked at this again Tuesday following the women's World Cup exit, and had some great thoughts on the issues involved.
Until we make sweeping changes to the structure of youth player development in Canada, we will never be competitive at the international level.
The reasons for this are simple.
Players need to learn the core fundamentals required to play the game of soccer at the optimal ages for development. Like many other sports, for soccer players the key learning years are between the ages of 8-12. These years are sometimes referred to as the "Golden Years of Learning".
Unfortunately, the structure of youth soccer in Canada does not encourage learning during these years. Why not? The structure of youth soccer in Canada actively promotes winning as the measure of success during these key learning years.
de Vos absolutely hits the nail on the head there. The major problem that has dogged Canadian soccer for most of the last few decades is small-picture thinking, with each individual team, club, and province looking out for its own interests. It goes to a personal level, too, with many coaches out to put up the best records they can and parents lobbying to try and get their own kid more playing time. Even with young kids, the focus isn't usually on skill development, but rather on winning games; that's led to overuse of defensive tactics, stifling of creativity and even certain coaches and clubs telling players they can't come back if they try out for a higher level and fail (in an attempt to keep the top players at lower levels).
Despite all that, Canada is still producing some world-class players like Sinclair (pictured at right scoring against Germany) and a few of her teammates. It's the structure to support them from the lowest level to the highest that's noticeably creaky; much of the team's talent isn't developed properly until far too late. That's left the squad as a whole without the properly-refined talent needed to succeed at this level.
Many are going to lay this team's failure at the foot of Morace, and her coaching certainly wasn't perfect. However, it does take time to turn a program around, especially when you're going for the radical changes she was. This tournament can't be seen as acceptable, but she should get more time to show what she can do with the senior team. In the meantime, the CSA should look at what they can do to improve the player-development side. The best coach in the world won't help you much if you don't give them the talent they need.
Canada absolutely can be a contender on the world stage in women's soccer given the amount of girls we have playing, our developmental facilities and the talent we have. It's going to take substantial attention and investment from the CSA, government and private business to boost this team to that level, though. Fortunately, hosting the 2015 Women's World Cup should provide an impetus for people to care about women's soccer, and maybe that will lead to some of the investments and reforms that are drastically needed. Perhaps this dismal failure of a World Cup can serve as a much-needed wake-up call.