France deals Canada devastating blow
Christine Sinclair tugged off her face mask and stood still on the pitch, staring skyward in disbelief.
The Canadian captain's broken nose had taken another beating, but this time the pain was the gut-wrenching emotional kind that comes when a World Cup campaign has ended too soon.
Canada's run came to a premature end Thursday, with a shocking 4-0 loss to seventh-ranked France. In an instant, all the high hopes that Canada had carried into this tournament, and the long months of preparation and sacrifice had disappeared.
And nobody seemed to know why.
"I can't even put it into words right now," said veteran Canadian goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc, who watched the misery unfold from the bench.
"We knew this was a tough group but I don't think we really thought that we'd be in this position right now," she added. "So we're all disappointed, heartbroken, and — I don't know. It's heartbreaking because we've given up so much. We prepared for so long, we had goals in mind and when you fall short you just feel gutted."
Gaetane Thiney scored twice, while Camille Abily and Elodie Thomis added one apiece for a French team ranked one spot lower than No. 7 Canada.
Combined with their 2-1 loss to Germany in the tournament — the game that left Sinclair with a broken nose — Canada has no hope of advancing out of the group stage for the second consecutive World Cup. Germany made sure of that with a 1-0 win over Nigeria in Thursday's late game.
Canada was the first team mathematically eliminated from the 16-team competition, and the loss was the biggest blowout of the event so far.
There's was nothing but silence in the post-game dressing room, said goalkeeper Erin McLeod, as the players tried to make sense of the night.
"Shock," said McLeod, easily Canada's top player on the night. "I don't think anyone said anything. Sixth in the world. We expect to do well now. So it hurts even more when we don't."
The loss was even more difficult to bear coming on the heels of a training camp in Rome. Instead of signing with pro club teams, the majority of the Canadians spent the better part of four months fine-tuning the playing style of Italian coach Carolina Morace.
"I've been home 10 days since January," McLeod said. "I've given up everything this year. So it's disappointing. And obviously we have to do something different to compete on the world stage."
Since her hiring in 2009, Morace has preached a fluid, passing and moving possession-style game, and it had appeared to be working for the Canadians, who arrived in Germany boasting their highest world ranking and a first CONCACAF title.
But it was French who played the way Morace had envisioned. They passed, ran and maintained their poised against a Canadian side that seemed frantic and disorganized virtually from the outset. They tripped over the ball, stepped on the ball, and launched it up into the stands.
"It was strange, the ball kind of tripped us," said midfielder Sophie Schmidt. "Little things that you normally wouldn't make a mistake on in practice… the pressure maybe got to us a little bit."
Sinclair's status was in doubt up until almost game time, but in the end it didn't really matter.
The 28-year-old from Burnaby, B.C., looked out of sorts at times, at one point uncharacteristically chipping the ball out of bounds. She had her first shot of the game in the 40th minute, from about 25 yards out, but fired it well wide of the net.
Sinclair, who scored Canada's lone goal versus Germany, played wearing a protective face mask that's part Catwoman, part Gladiator. She briefly came out of the game in the 80th minute after taking a ball directly in the face, a dribble of blood coming down her nose.
Sinclair was sent to doping control after the game and wasn't available to reporters.
Canada was outshot 19-7 and didn't managed a single shot on target. France put nine shots on goal.
Canada's only decent chances came in the 15th minute, when Diana Matheson lost possession of the ball during a break on net after a nice passing play, and in the 39th when a shot by Matheson soared just wide of the net.
"It's a hard pill to swallow when you work so hard for so long, and you have a tough loss," said Brittany Timko. "France is a great team, they were the better team on the day, we're just going to have to re-evaluate and prepare for the next game."
That's Nigeria on Tuesday in Dresden.
Said Morace: "It can happen, it's soccer. Of course, it would be better if this happened at the tournament in Cyprus and not here, but… "
Canada has rarely fared well at the World Cup, winning all of four games in five tournaments. The Canadian women finished fourth at the 2003 World Cup, the only time they've advanced out of the group stage, and were booted out of the tournament four years ago in China when they tied Australia in a game they needed to win.
But all that had seemed like ancient history with a Canadian that seemed to have everything going its way.
Morace agreed to stay with the team through the 2012 London Olympics after threatening to quit. It was a battle the players fought hard for — they threatened to boycott games — and won. They signed a new financial agreement with the Canadian Soccer Association, and Canada was awarded the 2015 Women's World Cup.
Veteran Brittany Timko was at a loss to explain what went wrong in front of 16,591 fans at Ruhrstadion -- a few hundred of them Canadian, judging by the dozens of Maple Leafs waving in the crowd.
"To be perfectly, everything is going a million miles an hour in my head right now," Timko said. "We're going to have to sit down and look at afterwards."
Added McLeod: "We have done a lot of preparation. There are so many things we could do differently. We trust our coaching staff. We've got to go back to the drawing board and make sure we get out of our group next time."
The Canadians had been concerned with their World Cup group, since it's the only one of the four with three teams ranked seventh or better.
"From the day the groups got drawn, people said we were in the 'Group of Death,"' Schmidt said. "But that was also that way because we're a strong team too."
But tough group or not, the Canadians couldn't give the French — who defeated 27th-ranked Nigeria 1-0 in their opener -- a game Thursday. They looked flustered from the outset, and paid the price in the 24th minute when Schmidt was unable to clear the ball, leaving Elise Bussaglia to take a shot that deflected off Emily Zurrer and Candace Chapman and popped up in the air. Thiney headed it past McLeod from the edge of the six-yard box.
Thiney doubled France's lead in the 59th, her shot banging off the post and into the net after a bad clearance by Zurrer.
Abily's goal came off a corner kick in the 65th minute. Abily, one of 10 members of the France team who play for Champions League winner Olympique Lyon, got away from Desiree Scott to connect on a long header.
Thomis scored in 81st minute, slipping through Canada's backline to chip an easy shot past McLeod.
France has been on the rise up the FIFA rankings the past couple of seasons, and had occupied a spot above Canada until March, when the Canadians were slotted at their all-time high of sixth.
France came in with the best record of the four Group A teams over the last 18 months, losing just once to the Netherlands.