After more than a year of pandemic delays, Canada’s women’s soccer team kicked off its Olympic tournament Wednesday with a 1-1 draw against host Japan, who oddsmakers had as heavy favourites going into this game.
Coming into the tournament, Canada had struggled to score goals or even generate quality scoring chances. That narrative appeared to change early.
After controlling the early moments of the game in Sapporo, Canada scored in the sixth minute thanks to captain Christine Sinclair, playing in her 300th game for her country.
Sinclair converted her own rebound from in close after her first shot hit the post. It was the 38-year-old’s 187th all-time goal, adding to her all-time international goal-scoring mark.
WATCH | Full match highlights, Canada vs. Japan:
“It was great to get ahead early,” she told CBC Sports. “I thought we played pretty well to start the game. It’s a shame we couldn’t hold on for the three points. I think we are disappointed with that.”
Neither team threatened again in the first half, with most of the remaining minutes played in the middle of the field.
Early in the second half, Japan almost equalized after a bizarre sequence.
After Canadian goalkeeper Stephanie Labbé collided with Japanese forward Mina Tanaka, a free kick was initially awarded to Canada.
Labbé was injured on the play, and while medical staff tended to her the play was reviewed. After a second look, Labbé was given a yellow card and the Canadian free kick became a Japanese penalty kick.
It appeared that the collision would force Labbé from the game but she remained on the field and denied Tanaka’s penalty with a diving save.
Japan followed the penalty kick with a flurry of chances as Canada was unable to clear the ball out of their penalty area. Labbé made a number of saves before having to leave the game with an injury. She left the pitch in tears and was replaced by Kailen Sheridan.
WATCH | Stephanie Labbé suffers injury, stops penalty then leaves game:
Canada appeared to be in control of the game, but Japan’s Manu Yabuchi equalized with six minutes to play. Yabuchi was able to chase down a long pass, outrunning Canadian defenders and chipping it by Sheridan.
After scoring early, Canada didn’t really threaten again, unable to generate much offence in the second half. Canada finished the game with only one shot on goal.
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Canadian coach Bev Priestman felt her team’s “nerves showed” in their first taste of Olympic action.
“To me it looked like the opening game got the better of them at times. We just have to keep believing and really get that three points out of the next game,” Priestman said.
Thankfully for both teams, this game was played indoors, inside the cavernous Sapporo Dome, which is located about 800 kilometres north of Tokyo. The weather in Japan has been stifling, with the temperature in Sapporo hitting 35 C, the hottest weather the city has seen in nearly 40 years.
COVID-19 protocols hamper home-pitch advantage
The ongoing pandemic, which has cast an early shadow over these Games, was apparent from the lack of fans inside the 40,000-seat arena. Japan didn’t have the backing of hometown fans, which typically gives the host nation an added advantage.
Organizers didn’t bother pumping in artificial crowd noise. Instead, you could hear almost everything being said on the field as well as the incessant clicking of cameras.
In any other year, it’s likely this game would have generated considerable excitement in Japan. But whether this game was generating any buzz was hard to gauge. There were no raucous gatherings or watch parties, as bars and restaurants in Japan have been asked to close at 8 p.m. in an attempt to stem a growing number of COVID-19 cases.
Canada came into this game brimming with confidence, not shy about their goal of winning gold at these Games. After winning bronze at the last two Olympics, the mantra for this team has been “change the colour”. It’s repeated constantly by Priestman and blasted over all of the team’s official social media streams.
“I truly believe that any given day if we turn up and we are ready, we can do that,” Priestman told international media before the game.
This 22-member Canadian team is a mix of familiar faces and newcomers. Sinclair, one of the most decorated soccer players to ever walk on the field, is of course this team’s leader.
“I still get up every day trying to get better and when that goes away, I have to step away,” said Sinclair, who is competing at her fourth Olympic Games.”To be able to compete in these Olympics with this group is something special. I wouldn’t be here if we didn’t have a chance to win.”
In total, five players on this team have appeared more than 100 times internationally for Canada. And 12 players were part of the Canadian team that won back-to-back bronze medals in 2102 and 2016.
WATCH | Canada women’s soccer Olympic preview:
“We have 22 players that can make a difference on the pitch, and I don’t think we have had that in the past,” Sinclair said before the game.
Japan, ranked 11th in the world, came into this game with a 7-4-3 all-time record against Canada. The last time the two teams played was in 2019, when Japan thumped Canada 4-0.
Group play continues for Canada on Saturday against Chile, then wraps up on Thursday against Great Britain.
The 12-nation tournament is divided into three round robin groups. The top two teams in each group plus the two best third-place teams will advance to the quarter-finals.