EDMONTON — Captain Christine Sinclair saved the day for Canada, converting a stoppage-time penalty for a 1-0 win over China in the opening match of the Women’s World Cup on Saturday.
Sinclair calmly slotted the ball into the corner in the 92nd minute and then ran to the Canadian bench where she was mobbed by teammates. The penalty was called after Adriana Leon was hauled down in the box by Zhao Rong.
“Cometh the hour, cometh the woman,” coach John Herdman said after Sinclair’s 154th goal for Canada. “Outstanding from Christine Sinclair, the sort of pressure (there was) on her. There’s only one woman in the world that can get up and do that.
“Good start for Canada. Three points in the bag. Exactly where we wanted to be.”
Put perhaps not how he drew it up. The game had seemed to be destined for a disappointing draw, with Canada unable to fire on all cylinders against a young China side.
For Canada, it was three points and a bullet dodged after Herdman switched to a more offensive 3-4-3 formation late in the game.
The penalty changed everything. Herdman called it a brave call by Ukraine referee Kateryna Monzul. China coach Hao Wei was classy in defeat, saying he needed to see the video of the incident but respected the referee’s calls.
The Canadians had earlier chances but failed to execute and, after a strong start, let the Chinese back into the match before an enthusiastic crowd of 53,058 at Commonwealth Stadium. Both teams hit the woodwork in the first half.
The previous attendance record for a Canadian national team match on home soil was 51,936, set June 5, 1994, when the Canadian men played Brazil at the same venue.
Canada is ranked eighth in the world, compared to No. 16 for China.
Canada’s next game is Thursday against No. 17 New Zealand, which played the 12th-ranked Netherlands in the second game of Saturday’s Group A doubleheader.
The tournament spotlight switches Sunday to Ottawa where No. 29 Thailand and the 67th-ranked Ivory Coast face No. 11 Norway and No. 1 Germany, respectively, in Group B play.
Canada had chances early with Kadeisha Buchanan forcing two saves off a free kick and Sinclair’s volley going just wide after a fine feed from Melissa Tancredi.
The home side dominated possession but Canadian ‘keeper Erin McLeod had to be sharp in the 19th minute to deny Gu Yasha on an errant back pass from Lauren Sesselmann.
Wang Lisi, in the 22nd minute, hit a free kick from outside the penalty box that rattled the ball off two posts and bounced away.
Josee Belanger, a forward starting to right fullback due to Canadian injuries, then hit the post from distance in the 27th minute. There was a pinball-like sequence in the Chinese penalty box in the 35th but Canada could not take advantage.
McLeod tested counterpart Wang Fei with a wind-aided free kick from just inside the halfway line that drifted close to the goal in the dying minutes of the first half.
Herdman brought off Jonelle Foligno for Kaylyn Kyle in the 61st minute, pushing Sophie Schmidt up higher. Ten minutes later he traded muscle for flair, bringing off hard-nosed Desiree Scott for teenage midfielder Jessie Fleming.
The last roll of the dice was Adriana Leon for Tancredi in the 77th minute.
Sincair had a chance to end the deadlock in the 83rd minute but did not get all of it and the shot went right at the ‘keeper. Schmidt then shot wide from outside the box as Canada pressed.
The crowd booed what it saw as China’s efforts to waste time as the clock wound down.
The game, under sunny and breezy 26-degree C conditions, was played on newly installed artificial turf at Commonwealth Stadium. The old turf was removed essentially for television, so remnants of white football lines weren’t visible.
Canada came into the game having won its last five matches against the Chinese, outscoring them 10-4 in the process. China’s last win over the Canadians was in May 2011.
China, which failed to qualify for the 2011 World Cup, is fielding a young squad here with an average age of under 24.
Canada’s best finish at the World Cup finish was fourth, in 2013. Its worst was 2011 when it came dead last, although the team rebounded to win Olympic bronze in London in 2012.
Prior to Saturday, its overall World Cup record was 4-11-3.
“We have worked our butts off to get here and today we will RISE,” Sesselmann pledged via social media before the game.
Sarah McLachlan, with a rendition of “In Your Shoes,” and Tegan and Sara, with “I’m Not Your Hero,” performed during a pithy nine-minute opening ceremony that told the story of a young female soccer player.
Saturday’s game was played 20 years to the day when Canada made its Women’s World Cup debut, in a 3-2 loss to England before just 655 in Helsingborg, Sweden.
FIFA.com’s matchtracker cited players’ actions as “his” during the first half. It was fixed to “her,” with a FIFA spokesman calling the gaffe a technical error.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press