EDMONTON (Reuters) - While the wider soccer world continued to convulse over revelations of FIFA bribery and corruption, Canada took a deep breath on Thursday and prepared for their moment in the Women’s World Cup spotlight.
Their fellow members of Group A -- China, New Zealand and Netherlands -- who will share opening day honors on Saturday, have not been able to escape questions as the media digs for answers behind a scandal that has triggered multiple arrests and investigations of high-ranking soccer officials.
But players and coaches at the Women’s World Cup have provided no insight while side-stepping the controversy in the same way they might avoid a tackle.
“There is no attention being put on that any more, it’s all about game day,” Canadian midfielder Sophie Schmidt told Reuters.
“The hype after the first 24, 48 hours of all that has settled down and we’re able to just focus on the game and task at hand. In this environment, we are now kind of shielded from all that.”
Ensconced in the Alberta capital that sits on the edge of the oil sands, there is no noticeable outrage in the city known as the “Gateway to the North” about the dark forces ripping away at soccer, known by many as the ‘beautiful game’.
Here the more pressing questions are economic ones centered on the oil stands and the nose-diving price of crude.
The tournament will open with Canada facing China in front of an expected sellout crowd of more than 50,000 at Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday and end on July 5 in Vancouver with another capacity crowd for the championship match.
Make no mistake, Edmonton is hockey country where the NHL’s showpiece Stanley Cup is the obsession, and not the Women’s World Cup.
A new arena that will be home to the NHL Oilers is taking its place in the city skyline while hockey talk dominates sport talk shows and newspaper sports sections.
Edmonton, however, has a long history of supporting women’s soccer, including over 47,000 filling Commonwealth Stadium in 2002 for the women’s under-19 championship game.
“The opening match is trending to be the largest attended ‘Senior A’ soccer match in our Canadian history, with over 52,000 people,” Canadian Soccer Association general secretary Peter Montopoli said during the tournament’s opening news conference in Vancouver on Thursday.
“We’re also looking at this as the largest attended national team match of any sport in our country. So obviously, the opening day, the opening match, is a big day for Canadian soccer and also Canadian sport. We’re looking at a sellout.”
The women’s World Cup is FIFA’s ‘mom-and-pop’ operation when compared to the multi-billion dollar conglomerate that is the men’s World Cup and now the focus of bribery allegations.
But the event seems a perfect fit for Edmonton, a city of just under one million that has embraced the event while stripping it of much of the bureaucracy that has bogged down the men’s tournament.
“It’s a positive thing that the first tournament after this - whatever happened last week - is the Women’s World Cup because women’s football is a very pure form of football,” Canadian Soccer Association president Victor Montagliani told a news conference in Vancouver.
”And I think women’s football can shine some light in the dark clouds that are hanging over the game.
“So actually whether you call it irony or destiny ... I think it’s an opportunity for women’s football to shine some light onto the game that perhaps has lost a little bit of its moral compass.”
Additional reporting by David Ljunggren and Julie Gordon; Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes