EDMONTON (Reuters) - Nearly all the tickets have been sold and all the boxes ticked as Canada wrapped up their final training session on Friday, declaring the team ready to take on China in the opening match of the Women’s World Cup.
After a week of being grilled about the corruption and bribery scandal that has rocked world soccer, talk finally turned to the pitch and Saturday’s opener with a bullish Canadian coach John Herdman setting a lofty target.
“Are we favorites for this event? No. Can we get on a roll with our country behind us? Yes,” Herdman told reporters.
“This group of women believe they can go all the way and they have a great purpose, they have a greater purpose than any other team at this event.
“And when you’ve got (that) it gives you a chance to go places you never thought you could get to. We play to win.”
While Canada has undergone a meticulous buildup, there was a hint of the unknown hanging over Saturday’s opener.
Which Canadian team will walk into Commonwealth Stadium to the cheers of close to 50,000?
Will it be the team that slumped out of the 2011 World Cup after failing to win a single game or the one that thrilled by taking an unexpected bronze at the 2012 London Olympics.
“We’ve ticked all the boxes,” said Herdman. “We’ve been working three years to get to this point and there is a good feeling around the team.”
The Chinese, meanwhile, have been on a wild rollercoaster ride of their own.
Once one of soccer’s dominant nations, the Steel Roses grabbed a silver at the 1999 Worlds and 1996 Olympics but have seen their ranking and form slip in recent years while failing to qualify for the 2011 World Cup and 2012 London Games.
Now ranked 16th, a young Chinese squad that is hard to breakdown defensively and lethal on the counter-attack will represent a tricky first test for the hosts who have targeted top spot in Group A.
“We are confident and have the capacity to reach the knockout stage,” said China coach Hao Wei, who has earned praise for regenerating a decimated Chinese program. “We should be able to play all kinds of strategy.”
When Canada does breach the Chinese wall, they will have to deal with goalkeeper Wang Fei, who made history by becoming the first Chinese player to break into Germany’s competitive women’s Bundesliga late last year.
“China is a very organized team, especially defensively,” Canadian midfielder Sophie Schmidt told Reuters. “They have been known to sort of sit back and park the bus so for us it is going to be difficult to break them down.”
Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes