There aren’t many sports tournaments in the world where the semifinals are more important than the final, but that’s exactly the situation at the 2012 CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifying Tournament at BC Place in Vancouver.
The Canadian women’s team has to get by Mexico Friday night to book a spot in Sunday’s final and more importantly, punch their ticket to this summer’s Olympics in London.
"No, it’s crazy," said Canadian star forward Christine Sinclair when asked if she can think of any tournament, other than this one, where the final holds less importance than the round that precedes it.
"But it’s the nature of the tournaments here for the women’s side that you have to win the semifinal. There are no second chances like there is in the World Cup. The key is to win this game and the final’s just the cherry on top."
Canada landed the game against Mexico by winning Group A, while the Mexicans finished second to the powerhouse Americans in Group B.
It’s a familiar scenario for the two teams. Since CONCACAF was granted a second spot in the Olympic tournament in time for the 2004 Athens Olympics, Canada and Mexico have duked it out each time. Mexico upset Canada the first time, with Canada coming out on top for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
"The past two Olympic qualifying tournaments, this is the game," said Sinclair. "The first time they beat us and last time we beat them so we’re used to playing them in this type of environment."
Canada had a very light mood in their final training session before the big game on Friday, but that’s been the norm throughout the entire tournament. The players are known to get along famously.
"It’s buoyant. As a culture, you want to see your players light, bright and clear," said Canadian head coach John Herdman after the session. "The strategy is simplistic — they’re at a good level with that. The mood’s good. If it’s anything like we see off the field… I think they’ll be in a great space [Friday night]."
Canada’s rebounded well since failing to live up to expectations when they crashed out of the World Cup in Germany last summer. After the Canadian Soccer Association replaced former coach Carolina Morace with Herdman, the team won gold at the Pan American Games in Mexico in October by beating Brazil in a shootout.
Now they’re just a game away from getting to their second consecutive Olympics.
"I think we’re playing with a lot of confidence and this is the game we’ve been preparing for since the World Cup," said veteran Brittany Timko. "This is the one-off game and if we win we’re going to the Olympics. All of our preparation post World Cup has been for this game."
Home crowd support … for both teams
Ranked No. 7 in the world according to the FIFA ranks, Canada is the favourite ahead of Mexico, who are listed at No. 21. That, combined with the fact they’re playing at home, means Canada does hold the advantage.
However, so far in this tournament, the Mexican team has received tremendously loud support from large groups of green-clad, Mexican flag-waving fans who have come out by the thousands to support their team.
In the Americans’ 4-0 win over Mexico on Tuesday, of the 7,499 fans in attendance, the Mexican fans were by far were greater in number and in volume.
"Wherever we play, we always find Mexicans," said Mexican coach Leonardo Cuellar. "We could be in Russia and there are going to be Mexicans there. We could be in China and there’s going to be Mexicans there. We know that even when we’re not at home we’re going to have a lot of people behind us."
The Canada-Mexico game is the later game of a doubleheader Friday night.
The opening game of the night features the heavily favoured United States squad as they take on Costa Rica. The winner of that game also books their spot to London which makes Sunday’s final a game for pride and, of course, bragging rights.