Historically, the Cameroon women’s national team is bad at soccer. They have qualified for one Olympics and two World Cups despite only having to get out of Africa, which some of my readers could do if they found ten equivalent friends. In 2015 they won two games in the group stage, somehow, over Switzerland and worst-team-alive Ecuador, but those were their first and only points in major competition. That aside, on the rare occasion they play non-African competition they lose heavily including a 2018 6-0 friendly loss to France. Their FIFA ranking is 46th, which is well into the disgraces.
Yet, in their opening game of the 2019 World Cup, Cameroon held Canada, who have an outside chance at winning this thing, to only a 1-0 win. Worse, that seemed fair: Chris Henderson had Canada leading the expected goals 1.31 to 0.68. This is impossible to look up but I doubt any team outside Africa has ever generated as few as 1.31 expected goals against the Cameroonians.
In mitigation we would say, first, that there was never any thought Cameroon might actually win this thing, and second, that the battery of uncalled fouls against Jessie Fleming in the final hour, some of which didn’t even pretend to try for the ball, cut down the chances Canada could create almost as much as Kadeisha Buchanan chopping down a Cameroonian attacker like a Christmas tree and somehow getting a foul called in her favour early in the game did the other way.
Third, and most importantly, Canada played the game to win it by one. Cameroon came out of the gate pressing as hard as ever they could and generating some decent results. They are not that skilled but they’re skilled enough, they’re not Thailand at all, and they’re quick and strong. Buoyed by a crowd that was modest but rambunctiously in their favour (the Cameroonian population in France is extensive), they challenged the Canadians to the best of their abilities and, very briefly, made the game look even. The rain in Montpellier, which at times was truly torrential, probably made things easier, encouraging aggressive tackles and making running seem less painful than disciplined positional play when the cold and the wet make inactive muscles tighten up. Of course you pay for it in the end, and Cameroon did: towards the end of the first half they were flagging, and at the end of the second Cameroon was trying their hardest but effectively unable to complete and the game was functionally over.
Cameroon’s one apparently high-class scoring chance, the header wide by Claudine Meffometou, was actually marked out perfectly by Allysha Chapman, who kept outside on Meffometou as she went up and prevented her from ever getting a header on target. Canada generated probably the sum of one good chance: Kadeisha Buchanan’s headed goal usually doesn’t go in, but Christine Sinclair’s header wide on the second-half break by Deanne Rose usually does1. Every stat other than expected goals showed Canadian dominance: passes, possession, challenges, tackles, name it. From the terraces the Voyageurs watched that game and worried Cameroon would snatch it because soccer is a stupid old game, but we also weren’t really.
To an extent Canada’s offensive ineptitude is bad luck. From the Fleming fouls to the balls not quite rolling our way or onto Cameroonian shins, we weren’t exactly loaded up on breaks Monday night. On the other hand, the same Chris Henderson who gave us 1.61 xG against Cameroon gave us 0.39 for our preparatory friendly against Spain “B.” On the other other hand Spain got 0.05, and if your opponents can expect to score on you one game in every twenty that will, generally, do. We can be better but for now, this is who we are, and we shouldn’t start trying to open the floodgates at a World Cup because fans think we’d be so much more attacking if we’d only apply ourselves.
It’s time to accept Canada’s nickname as the “Shithouse Queens” (♫ having the time of our lives… ♫). This is how we’re playing and has been for a while; notwithstanding the fact that we were playing true super-minnows, it’s even what we were doing in Olympic qualifying. Scott and Schmidt in defensive midfield clogging everything up, Buchanan running wild, a lot of attacks based off individual excellence like Rose running past everybody in Montpellier. There are things to tighten up, without a doubt: we passed too much in the first half, given the demonstrated long-range chops of Sinclair, Schmidt, and Beckie we wouldn’t do any harm if instead of going for the perfect lay-off we just let ‘er go once in a while. And I reckon that, in general, an over-focus on crosses has served us badly every time we’ve tried it. Christine Sinclair is big, strong, and heads the ball well, but actually she isn’t nearly at her best trying to get service from crosses. We certainly have the ability to take on teams south of France and the USA up the middle.
These are the sorts of criticisms fans always have, though. We know our team is amazing and want them to prove it, like… well, the United States against a hopelessly demoralized Thailand, with a goalkeeper no longer bothering to move into the way of shots by the 60th minute. However, if we put down the rosé-coloured glasses2 and consider this objectively, Canada’s current tactics have been effective. They are, moreover, the sorts of tactics that are tailor-made for playing top teams. The TSN panel and television viewers and, really, those of us in the stands in France might want more attacking tactics against a team like Cameroon that shouldn’t be able to resist no matter what we do. But the smart thing to do is to play Cameroon more-or-less like you’d play the United States, give-or-take things like squad rotation (and if we are to criticize Canada and Kenneth Heiner-Møller for one thing, let it be that we made one substitution when vital, high-energy players like Sinclair or Lawrence could easily have been given 30 helpful minutes off). Coaches say, “practice as you mean to play,” and they’re right. There’s room to improve but what Canada does has been winning us soccer games and, though it reads lousy in the post-match reports, tense 1-0 wins over everybody are exciting enough in the moment.
- Though that play was started by Steph Labbe making a horrifying, 2014-style first touch almost into the path of a Cameroonian attacker that she managed to get to first and line-drive straight to Rose’s feet; I’d give her the benefit of the doubt but that was the first of three old-style Labs mistakes.
- We’ve been drinking a lot of rosé.