As the FIFA Women’s World Cup kicks off in Edmonton tonight, the stage is set for football to shine in Canada. This is the second time Canada gets to stage a major FIFA tournament in eight years, as the country successfully hosted the 2007 U-20 Men’s World Cup.
Recently expanded to 24 teams the media spotlight on the FIFA Women’s World Cup tournament has significantly grown in the last ten years. The growing significance of the game will also have a major impact on “soccer” in Canada, as the media attention the game has received in the build up to the tournament will certainly help to increase interest in the game even further.
Already the game is on healthy footing in the country as grass roots football has significantly expanded. Indeed, football is ranked as the number one sport for children aged five and 14 since 1998. According to MacLean’s Magazine 32% of boys and girls that participated in sports played football that year. By 2010 that number has grown to 42%, and football continues to grow in the country.
Football also has made a significant step forward in terms of viewership on television. More Canadians watched Germany beat Argentina in Rio de Janeiro for last year’s men’s World Cup than the final game of the Stanley Cup final between the Los Angeles King’s and the New York Rangers. At the 2012 London Olympics as many as 10.5 million tuned in to watch Canada’s semi-final against the United States. In comparison 3.7 million Canadians watched the final game of the 2012 Stanley Cup finals.
Yet Canada’s men’s national team has struggled on the world stage. Despite winning the 2000 CONCACAF Gold Cup, Canada has been a perpetual failure in World Cup qualifiers. Only once, for Mexico 1986, did Canada manage to participate on the world’s biggest sporting stage.
At the same time the senior men’s game has also grown in Canada. Major League Soccer now operates three franchises in the country: Vancouver Whitecaps, Toronto FC, and Montreal Impact. Another two clubs participate in the North American Soccer League (FC Edmonton and Ottawa Fury FC). The three Canadian MLS franchises also operate teams in the United Soccer League as farm teams. Furthermore, the Canadian Soccer Association may finally introduce a national Canadian Soccer League by 2017.
Women’s Football – Carrying the Torch for Canada
Women’s football has been an entirely different story. While failing to qualify for the first World Cup that took place in China in 1991, Canada has managed to qualify for every tournament since. Their biggest success came in 2003 when Canada took fourth place in the United States.
Canada has also won the 1998 and 2010 CONCACAF championships. Furthermore, Canada also secured a bronze medal at the 2012 Olympic Games in London – a tournament that left a bitter aftertaste for many Canadian soccer fans as Canada was defeated in the semi-final by the United States in a game marked by controversy.
But 2012 was also significant as it saw the rise of Christine Sinclair, who has since become a true Canadian soccer star. Sinclair has played 222 games, and scored 153 goals for her country making her one of the most recognized faces of women’s football not only in Canada but also in the world.
Sinclair was one of the tragic figures in the loss against the United States in 2012. She capped a wonderful display with three goals, but in the end her performance was overshadowed by several questionable calls by the Norwegian referee Christina Pedersen, as the United States won the game 4:3.
Sinclair, and the entire Canadian national team will aim to rectify the result at the London Olympics by leaving a major mark on Canada 2015. Canada’s aim will be to not only host a successful tournament but also to win it.
The major challengers to Canada’s title ambitions will be the United States, and Germany, which have both won the title twice. Germany especially will try to overcome their disappointing result at the 2011 World Cup hosted by Germany. The Germans may indeed have the deepest squad as German club teams have dominated the Women’s Champions League, and Germany has also managed to win the U-20 Women’s World Cup that took place in Canada last year.
Like the German’s the United States are always a major contender, but it will be interesting to see how the USA will handle the country’s media pressure. Then there is the case of Hope Solo who was recently cleared of domestic abuse charges, but it will remain to be seen whether or not she will be able to focus on the tournament due to the media spotlight on this scandal. There is also the storm over Abby Wambach’s decision to skip this years NWSL season in order to prepare herself for the tournament.
Dark horses include Brazil, but it is doubtful whether or not world-class striker Marta will be enough to carry the country to their first gold medal at the Women’s World Cup.
No matter the outcome of this month’s tournament, the stage is set for football to take centre stage in Canada, and to help the game grow in popularity.
Manuel Veth is a PhD candidate at the University of London King’s College, London. Originally from Munich, his thesis is entitled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States”. Follow Manuel on Twitter @homosovieticus.