Every footballer wants to play for their country and as Sophie Schmidt said, “it’s a footballers dream to play a World Cup in your own country. It’s a rarity, it adds pride behind the jersey.” It’s this very sentiment that Sophie shared with me when I spent time with her and team mates Kadeisha Buchanan, Erin McLeod as well as Coach John Herdman that made you instantly warm to the team, the country and all they have planned for this amazing event.
FIFA and Canada have done an incredible job of promoting and creating such a welcoming environment for this event with what is projected to be the largest audience ever and it seems that the approach is the same across the board. Excellence in what they are doing, but at the same time a desire and ability to revel in the moment and enjoy it. There isn’t a sense of intensity and stress, but a relaxed one that is focused on delivery and a good event for all. As coach John said, “55,000 Canadian fans in Edmonton will be fantastic!”
Everyone is excited and wants to have a good World Cup, but for it to be enjoyed by all, yes, the Canadians are focused on winning, of course they are. But it is this balance between excellence, wanting to win the Cup and enjoying the moment that they seem to have, no matter who you speak to or what is put out in the media. It’s the same message and that is quite a feat.
People speak about ‘home advantage’ and how crowds have pushed some teams further than they would normally have gone - and this is something the team are aware of and rather than it being the elephant in the room, they have embraced it in a very interesting way. First, from coach John’s point of view, he knew from the get-go that this would be an issue that would need addressing and so as he says, he “put them in situations they were uncomfortable with”, getting big teams to play them at home and beat them.
This may seem an odd way to go about things but it has provided him and the team with huge learning that they can put into practise during the tournament now. Losing at home, losing in general and losing in front of friends and family and learning how to deal with that have all been worked through, so that they can now focus on what they need to do and play the football they are all comfortable with. They have turned these games into a huge amount of learning. For the team it’s all about preparation, various scenarios and what to do. As John said, “...when you get to a tournament, anything happens and we want to be ready for any situation”. This doesn’t mean the team isn’t aware of the pressure either - as goalkeeper Erin McLeod explained, “...the momentum of the country behind you is great, but with that comes pressure and we are aware of that”.
John is wanting to have a team that walks onto the pitch for the first game completely prepared for anything that happens, as well as having dealt with the obvious challenges. He doesn’t want to be dealing with things on the pitch in a World Cup as a surprise. He doesn’t want the team to focus on surprises, he wants them to focus on football and winning. Winning is something that is increasingly a part of their make up: straight wins since December last year and only losing in the final to England in the Cyprus Cup in March by 0-1, has set them up to be perfectly positioned.
Talking with the team, it’s very obvious the approach has been well instilled. They are better for the losses, they are better for the knowledge and tools they have been given to deal with every eventuality and they are feeling that things are in a good place. As Sophie explained, “...our mindset is great, we are heading in the right direction and we will peak at the World Cup.” (This to a cheer from her team mates!) It’s about a connection between the various units and the small details and there is a quiet confidence in what they are doing that you can sense when talking with them.
As Kadeisha Buchanan explained, the home crowd is something new and something they are looking to use positively. “Fans support will be huge, in those games where it goes quiet and tough and you need a little pick-me-up, we are looking for the fans to provide that”. They are looking to embrace the support rather than looking at it as a pressure to perform and this is why it is genius what John did, getting the tough games at home in the build up to this.
Having said all of that there is tangible excitement from all of them at the prospect of playing in a World Cup, but more so that they are playing at home in front of family and friends. For so many of them their loved ones have previously been unable to travel and see them play so to do so in a World Cup on home soil, perfect.
The team spirit and the vibe I get from them is best summed up by Erin when she says “we are a team that plays a lot with our heart”. This is a group of focused, prepared and connected footballers who are going to welcome and revel in everything that being a host nation brings - but importantly with eyes wide open, having dealt with a lot of the challenges they may face and still come out smiling the other side.
This is a team that is going to use the fans’ support and the pull on the heart strings of the friends and family watching in the stand to make Canada proud of them as well as the World Cup family, whilst playing the best football they can and enjoying living their dreams.
Editors note: from staff to coaches to players the team was so welcoming and a pleasure to be around, a really nice vibe and great to spend time with, all so smiley!