The Group of Death? Don't try telling that to Canadian coach Carolina Morace. She doesn't want to hear it.
Canada learned its first-round opponents for the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup at the official tournament draw Monday when it was selected to play in Group A with Germany, Nigeria and France.
The consensus among the 150 media members from around the world who gathered inside the Frankfurt Congress Centre was that Group A was unquestionably the Group of Death, the name usually given to the toughest round-robin group at international soccer tournaments.
On the evidence of Monday's draw, it's easy to understand why. Local bookmakers have already pegged Germany, the competition's host nation and the defending two-time champions, as 2-1 favourites to win a third consecutive World Cup crown. Nigeria is the reigning African champion and has competed at all six previous World Cups, while France is an emerging power in the European game.
Canada must finish in the top two in the group to advance to the knockout stage and avoid a repeat of the 2007 tournament when it unceremoniously bowed out in the first round. Being drawn into the same pool as Germany, currently ranked No. 2 in the FIFA world rankings, doesn't make things easy for the Canadians.
Morace doesn't put any stock in the Group of Death hyperbole, though, and she firmly believes her Canadian side, ranked No. 9, can qualify for the quarter-finals from this challenging group.
"If I didn't think we could do it, I would have to quit right away and go home to Italy," Morace joked in an interview with CBCSports.ca after the draw was completed.
The Venice-born coach conceded that Canada will have its hands full with Germany. But she explained that Canada dodged a bit of a bullet in drawing France in the group, instead of more experienced and more accomplished European teams.
"This group is very tough. Germany has to be considered the favourite to win, but we can also say that maybe we are a bit lucky. The French are a good team but a little weaker than Sweden or Norway," Morace stated.
Coach seeks team chemistry
The opening match of the tournament will see Canada take on Germany before an expected crowd of 70,000 spectators at Berlin's Olympic Stadium on June 26. In one of the draw ceremony's lighter moments, Morace tried in vain to win over the favour of Berliners.
"First of all, I want to say Berlin is just a beautiful city," the Canadian coach said tongue-in-cheek during the FIFA broadcast.
Canada won the CONCACAF championship earlier this month in Mexico by winning all five of its games by a combined score of 17-0. Canada's last loss in a competitive match was 5-0 defeat at the hands of Germany in September, although Morace maintains not much should be read into that result.
"We lost to Germany the month before they lost 4-0 to the U.S., so they are not invincible and anything can happen," Morace warned.
"They didn't dominate us. We lost because we made some silly mistakes and we were missing some injured players. I think it will be different at the World Cup."
The Germans have a decided advantage over their Canadian counterparts, according to Morace, in that Germany has its own professional women's league, allowing its players to compete regularly at the highest level.
Morace doesn't enjoy the same luxury because there is no Canadian professional division, and she must rely on holding extensive training camps in order to see her players in the flesh. She plans on using an exhibition tournament in Brazil next month, and similar competitions in China and Cyprus in early 2011, to build team chemistry.
"I want to make sure the players are already thinking about that first game against Germany and give them some confidence," Morace said.
Morace later added: "If we are to reduce the gap between us and Germany, then we must spend as much time together training and playing in exhibition matches."
While Canadian fans will no doubt be looking forward to the first game against Germany, Morace warned that Canada can't afford to look past its other group opponents.
"Nigeria is a physical team. They mark man-to-man in defence," Morace stated. "In the coming months, I want to see more video and learn more about them."
France's only previous World Cup appearance came in 2003, the same year Canada reached the semifinals. Although not a traditional power in the women's game, they have improved over time.
"I saw them play at home against Italy recently and they were very well organized in defence," Morace said. "They are a very technical team, and they have some skilful players."