It is popular in the Canadian soccer commentariat to write off the Canadian women's national soccer team's medal hopes in London this year. Canada, currently ranked seventh in the world, is coming off a 2011-12 campaign under John Herdman that's featured good performances against weaker teams but no giant-slayings. They've met expectations and seldom disappointed under their New Zealand-born gaffer, but they've also been far from making the leap into the world top three.
This is all true. Ranked seventh in the world, Canada is a distinct third favourite in a nasty Group F that includes defending World Cup champion Japan, world number four Sweden, and South Africa, who, um, also play women's soccer apparently.
Canada's recent form has been good but not sterling. The team had a fairly promising and certainly comprehensive pre-tournament period in Switzerland, where Diana Matheson got an entire country to sigh in relief as the diminutive midfielder showed she is back to her old self after an awful knee injury (and scored a fine chipped goal to boot). There are questions surrounding Canada's defense, which particularly out wide tied itself in knots from time to time, but the midfield is improving with Matheson's return and the continued ascendancy of Desiree Scott and Sophie Schmidt. Then, of course, there is Christine Sinclair, the alpha and the omega of Canada, one of the world's very best players, and aided surprisingly well by a bit of an Indian summer from 30-year-old Melissa Tancredi.
The Canadians kick off Wednesday morning at 9 AM (live on TSN; I will be running game threads for each Canadian Olympic match) against Japan; possibly the most important game of the group stage. There's no question that the odds are against Canada in their quest for their first ever women's Olympic soccer medal. Yet when you look at what they actually have to do, Canada must be ranked at least outside contenders.
It can happen, my friends. It can absolutely happen.
Canada's chances of getting out of the group are better than fair. In a four-team group the top two advance to the knockout stages, plus the best two third-placed teams from the three groups. Obviously it's hugely to Canada's advantage not to rely on advancing through finishing in third place, since if Canada does reach the quarterfinals that way they will face the winner of Group G, or "the group with the United States in it".
Still, Canada has the inside track on getting one of the two best third-place records if it comes down to that, for Canada will face the weak sister of the entire tournament. South Africa has never qualified for a women's World Cup, only just qualified for their first Olympic Games, and only got through the (ridiculously stupid) African qualification format by beating lowly Tunisia on penalties then crushing Ethiopia, one of the very worst international teams ever to reach such a lofty position, in the qualification final.
South Africa is a doormat, a creampuff; they will present no obstacle to the other three teams in the group and will give Canada a great chance for an impressive goal differential. No other team is as weak; Cameroon is closest. But it's hard to picture the third-place team in Group G (likely to be either North Korea or Colombia; probably the Norks but both are highly credible) getting the sort of goal difference Canada ought to against Banyana Banyana.
The rest of Canada's group, however, is nasty. The headliners are Japan, defending World Cup champions and third in the world. Japan has been playing the class of women's soccer in the run-up to the Games, and while their results haven't been brilliant (6W-1D-3L in their last ten games) the opposition has been (losses to Germany, the United States, and France; a draw against the United States; victory over Norway, Denmark, the United States, Brazil, Sweden, and Australia).
Japan is not an invincible foe. The 2011 World Cup is their only major honour unless you count fourth place at the 2008 Olympics. But they're a very strong team anchored in attack by legendary midfielder Homare Sawa, a fascinating two-dimensional attacker and 2011 FIFA Player of the Year. Striker Yūki Ōgimi, who like many of her compatriots plays professionally in Germany, is their next leading attacking threat. They win games in midfield rather than with tenacious defense, although goalkeepers Ayumi Kaihori and Miho Fukumoto are both strong and will probably each get minutes in this tournament.
The hope for Canada against Japan is that Sinclair and Tancredi can get space against an undersized Japanese defense (only 21-year-old Saki Kumagai is taller than 5'5") and make their mark while Canada's own slightly questionable back four holds on against a ferocious counter-attacking side. It can happen but would be an upset.
The problem is that's not the only upset Canada would need to spring. Indeed, it is my opinion that world number four Sweden might be a worse match-up for Canada than the World Cup champions. Sweden aren't big scorers: the majority of their offense comes through talented, lanky forward Lotta Schelin with veteran midfielder Therese Sjögran still a primary playmaker. And they defend, hard; they are without down the most frustrating team to play in the group.
Canada and Sweden have recent history against each other: Sweden beat Big Red 3-1 in Sweden on March 31 in a game that was apparently not even that close, as Canada went down 3-0 in a hurry before Sophie Schmidt got a consolation goal back (although John Herdman did emphasize after the match that he had been experimenting more than usual).
The Swedes are so bloody annoying to play against it can make you tear your hair out. Compare them to the Nordic élan of their men's team; it's like night and day. Neither the team nor the fans will complain, though. Women's football is increasingly popular in Sweden and the Swedish league growing competitive; a number of Canadian players including Erin McLeod and Sophie Schmidt play there.
The good news for Canada is that, apart from beating us, Sweden hasn't had a world-class result in months. They've lost by ignominious scores to Japan, to the United States, and to Germany this year. They played only three friendlies since April, one of which was a waste of time in Scotland. And in our second-most recent encounter with the Swedes, back in November 2011, Canada actually bagged a 2-1 win on a Christine Sinclair stoppage-time winner. Frankly, the Swedes haven't played a really intimidating game since last summer.
Yet one must respect Sweden's skill, which cannot be doubted. And they have a habit of doing what they need to do against weaker opponents, which Canada on paper is. They may not make noise in the tournament but they could certainly make it against us.
It would take bravery to predict a second-place finish in the group for Canada, but it's not impossible. Neither Japan nor Sweden would represent a world-shaking upset, although it would certainly be the best result Canada had gotten in some years. Second place in Group F would book Canada a surprisingly easy draw against the second-placed team in Group E; probably Great Britain but an outside chance at Brazil or New Zealand depending on the breaks. Great Britain is certainly vulnerable to Canada, and even Brazil's lost big matches to us in the past. In fact, if Canada did get second place in their group odds are they'd be favoured in their quarter final.
And then the semi-final, against either the winner of group F (pick 'em between Japan and Sweden) or the second-place team in group G (all smart money says France). That's the tough game. That's the one miracle upset Canada needs to pull to get on the podium. Japan and Sweden we've discussed, but Canada's inability to get the big result against France has been an infuriating subplot since the last World Cup. What a test that would be.
But when you look at Canada's potential path to a medal... second place in their group then one upset, just one, and not even one for the ages, in the semi-final or even the third-place game... I might not bet on it, but does that look like something you can write off?