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Canada's Group of Death (or: Winning the Women's World Cup the Hard Way)

Once again, Canada's women's soccer team finds itself in a brutal group against the host nation at a major tournament. (Photo by Koji Watanabe/Getty Images)
Once again, Canada's women's soccer team finds itself in a brutal group against the host nation at a major tournament. (Photo by Koji Watanabe/Getty Images)

It's always nice when Canada qualifies for a soccer World Cup, regardless of the gender and the level. It's not exactly an everyday occurrence.

It would be even nicer if FIFA could make it a little easier for us, though.

Thanks to the vagaries of FIFA's women's ranking system (i.e. thanks to FIFA's rampant corruption), Canada just missed out on being seeded for today's draw in the Women's World Cup. We were ranked ninth and the top eight got seated: a top eight that included the United States despite the fact that we just won a tournament they finished third in. As a result, it was entirely possible that Canada would face a brutal group in the Women's World Cup that would include at least one first-rank soccer power and make our job very, very difficult.

It turned out to be even worse than that.

Canada finds itself situated in what is without question the Group of Death. The reigning CONCACAF champions are the third-ranked team in group A, behind Germany, tournament hosts and widely recognized as the best women's team in the world. Then comes France, ranked eighth in the world and an extremely strong team that made the quarter-finals of the 2009 European championships. Below us stands Nigeria, by far the best-ranked women's team in Africa and reigning African champions.

Three continental champions in one group. Three of the world's top ten in one group for a sixteen-team tournament. And one of those teams is by far the best team in the world and the huge favourite for the World Cup crown playing on home soil. A team that, not so long ago, thrashed us 5-0 in a friendly.

In a tournament this size, they say, there are no easy groups. Well, there is one easy group: England's position in group B is strong enough that not even Panorama could dislodge it. But group A is certainly the most difficult. Some will point to group C, but the Colombians are the worst team in the tournament and the North Koreans unbelievably overrated. Group A has the best team in the tournament, the tightest fight between second and third, and by far the best fourth team.

None of these sides will have it easy. For Canada, getting out of this group may be the most formidable challenge in World Cup history. After the jump, a preview of the Women's World Cup Group of Death.

FIFA Ranking: 2nd
Current UEFA Champion
Last Meeting: Germany 5 - 0 Canada, Dresden, September 15, 2010

Though Germany is ranked second in the world, many judges of women's soccer would put them well ahead of the American team. The Elo ranking which FIFA uses to rank women's soccer heavily rates past performance, and since 2007 the Americans were clearly the best women's team in the world. In the past two years, however, the gap has closed and the Germans have been getting by far the better results. The United States fell below expectations in their CONCACAF qualifiers and struggled somewhat to get past lowly Italy. They actually beat Germany in a friendly cup in March of this year, but have struggled where it counts. Meanwhile, Germany beat all comers in the 2009 UEFA championship, including a 6-2 victory over England in the final. They're two-time defending World Cup champions and five-time defending European champions. They're good.

Even if you don't think they're better than the Americans overall, the Germans also have home field advantage. The Women's World Cup tends to attract very little away support, so the crowds will be even more enthusiastically pro-German than usual. This is Germany's tournament and the rest of us are just playing in it.

Canada is not the team to stop the German machine, either. We've played Germany ten times going back to 1987. In those ten games, we have no wins, no draws, and ten defeats. We have scored nine goals and conceded thirty-five. The last time Germany beat another country that comprehensively... well, make your own joke here.

The Germans boast an excellent veteran goalkeeper in Nadine Angerer. Their defense has traditionally been a point of weakness, to the extent that the Germans have had any weaknesses, but under the expert tutelage of head coach Silvia Neid matters are rapidly improving. That defense, anchored by promising players such as Babett Peter and particularly Annike Krahn, is in fact largely responsible for their return to the top of the women's soccer world. Their midfield isn't what it used to be, with many young players forced into major roles and old star Kerstin Garefrekes losing a step at thirty-one years old. However, it still ranks among the best in the world, and even if it didn't veteran strikers Martina Müller and captain Birgit Prinz are two all-time greats. This team is getting older, it's true, and in three or four years other teams may have a chance to unseat them if the German youth doesn't continue to improve. But this is still a powerful team and their day of reckoning has not yet come.

I can make every hopeful excuse in the world. Under Carolina Morace, the Canadian team looks more focused than ever and is playing the best soccer in its history. Our form in recent tournaments is second-to-none. And Canada's game against Germany is the opening game of the tournament: the pressure on the host Germans will be immense, whereas Canada will have nothing to lose. The conditions exist for an upset. But the last time we played Germany was just in September, and we lost 5-0. We're not going to win that game. We'd be damned lucky just to draw.

FIFA Ranking: 8th
Last Meeting: France 0 - 0 Canada, Bondoufle, France, March 14, 2008

France is going to be forgotten in this group, which is too bad because they really are one of the world's brightest teams. The French women's program has only recently come to prominence: this will be only the second Women's World Cup in their history and their best finish ever in a continental competition was their quarterfinal run in 2009. However, their program is improving by leaps and bounds and they are rising stars in UEFA.

That's not to say France is short on veteran leadership. Captain Sandrine Soubeyrand is a 37-year-old midfielder who is entering her fourteenth year with the national team. Defender Sonia Bompastor, though only thirty, has also been part of the French national setup seemingly forever and provides brutal, no-nonsense efficiency on the backline.

But this is predominantly a young woman's team. Soubeyrand and Bompastor are the only regular national players over the age of thirty. Their leading star is 25-year-old midfielder Gaëtane Thiney, a natural offensive midfielder who came to prominence relatively late in her development but is already France's leading active goalscorer. Striker Marie-Laure Delie, although not yet among the world's best, has ten goals in only thirteen appearances at the age of twenty-two and could be a dangerous X factor for the French team.

France is probably on par with Canada competitively, though perhaps slightly behind. Our all-time record against France is three wins, two draws, and one loss, although none of those results are any more recent than 2008 and most came against the previous, inferior generation of the French national team. Canada does enjoy an advantage in goal and significantly more experience: whereas for the likes of Delie and Thiney this is their first appearance in the World Cup, it is old hand to Canadians like Christine Sinclair. We also have an advantage in coaching, as Bruno Bini is sometimes considered a bit of a crank who got the job simply because he was coaching girls in France when there wasn't much interest in their ladies team.

In order to get out of the group, Canada will desperately need a result against the French: they are probably what will swing us either in or out. It's possible for us to get one, but it will be a very, very evenly-fought contest and we can take nothing for granted.

FIFA Ranking: 27th
Current CAF Champion
Have never played Canada

The Nigerians are the champions of Africa, and indeed are by far the dominant power in the history of the continent. Nigeria has won every CAF senior women's championship in history with the exception of the 2008 title, won by the controversial Equatorial Guinean team. They've reliably achieved good, if not remarkable results in the World Cup and have even made decent names for themselves in a couple of Olympic Games. Don't be fooled by their being ranked twenty-seventh in the world: that's just an indicator of the weak competition they face in Africa. Nigeria is a good team and a worthy adversary. While they aren't as good as France or Canada, they're more than good enough to challenge us.

Annoyingly for those of us hoping to work up some analysis, Canada and Nigeria have never played at the senior women's level. For all their skill and obvious ability, the Super Falcons are very much the neglected cousin in the Nigerian national setup: both media attention and the federation's support are largely reserved for the men's national program. This is all too typical of women's soccer in Africa, and more-or-less the reason why the CAF ladies' programs are generally so uncompetitive. Nigeria actually gives their team more support than most confederations in the region: at least they are able to participate in tournaments like the World Cup and the Olympics with the best players available.

It is left to Nigeria's results and their history to speak for itself. The 2007 team was a very competitive fourth in the strong Group B that included the United States, North Korea, and Sweden, whereas in 2003 Nigeria was handily defeated in (remarkably) the exact same group. While by no means a women's soccer superpower, Nigeria is a credible threat. They've advanced out of the group stages before, reaching the quarter-finals in 1999. The advance of women's soccer around the world has worked against Nigeria, as they are still relatively backwards. But this is still by no means a bad team and if Canada (or France) take them lightly, they could be in for a shock.