Who needs goals? Nigeria and Canada entertain in a thriller.

Nigeria 0 Canada 0

Melbourne’s AAMI Park was treated to an incredible game of football on Friday as the FIFA Women’s World Cup rolled into the self-proclaimed sporting capital of Australia. The unfancied Nigeria rode their luck early on and grew into the game, coming so close to snatching a win against one of the world’s major forces in women’s football. An incredible penalty save from Chiamaka Nnadozie denied veteran Chrstine Sinclair a record-breaking goal, but this game was more than that; it oozed drama and, to a knowledgeable football-loving public, this was a great spectacle despite the unflattering result on the scoreboard.

One hour to kick off at AAMI Park on a cool winter’s day following an early start from Sydney and, if it wasn’t for the colourful signage in the stadium, this could have been an Australia Cup preliminary game with only a few hundred fans in attendance. The head-splitting music being blasted from the PA system made conversation difficult as the players emerged, firstly Nigeria in their black warm-up jackets to break up the bright green, running through their FIFA 11 warm up routine at the side of the field, then the Canadian team, racing out with a spring in their step and running through a much more intense warm-up than their opponents. Manager Bev Priestman calmly surveyed her troops as the green seats started to be swallowed up by the late-arriving public.

The traditional smoking ceremony was already underway by the technical areas as the music continued to pump out, the aboriginal elder standing waiting for the thumping beats to subside before telling us why there was smoke filling the air. The huge rectangular Melbourne Naarm flag covered the centre circle as Auntie Joy welcomed everyone to the tournament. The Canadian substitutes and staff lined up for the welcome to country, the Nigerians chose not to. The Inclusion flag and the FIFA flag was followed by the national flags of each country, then the appearance of the players in a choreographed sequence of events that will be played out at every venue. Again, the teams did things differently, Nigeria ready and in place while they waited for the Canadian players to high five each other before lining up. Early mind games maybe? The Canadian anthem truly is one to get that lump in the throat, although the music was so loud there was no chance of hearing anyone in the crowd singing along. The time-honoured tradition of counting down to kick off was upheld and the game got underway to vocal haranguing from the shouty Nigerian fans.

The early play was scruffy, misplaced passes, Chiamaka Nnadozie fluffing her clearance and a full-blooded studs up challenge drawing the first free-kick but nothing more. Adriana Leon ended up in a heap when she discovered how strong a Nigerian defender could be in full flight. The tendency for the Nigerian players to go to ground before making the tackle was making their challenges look borderline fouls; hopefully this would not come back to haunt them later in the game. The first real chance fell to Canada and it fell to Christine Sinclair, but her shot lacked the required curl and flashed over the corner of post and bar. Leon supplied the razzle-dazzle out wide on the left, and Canada were lucky to escape a booking as Quinn went in with her foot raised on superstar Asisat Oshoala. The favour was returned by Michelle Alozie, scything down her player as she fell for the trickery of Ashley Lawrence up the left-hand side. This game had bite, but little goalmouth action until Oshoala found a yard outside the penalty area and fizzed in a shot that Kailen Sheridan pushed out for a corner. Nigeria had woken as an attacking force, and Canada had to heed the warning signs.

Lawrence then raced away down the left to deliver onto the head of Jordyn Huitema, but the header was off target. Nigeria streamed forward, forcing a corner, Toni Payne teeing up a header from Oshoala, and from the next corner a long range shot from Deborah Abiodun had the crowd on their feet. The spectators were roused into action. Nigeria then squandered the best chance, Oshoala fortunate to see Sheridan miss the kick, but she passed up the opportunity to try and squeeze in a shot on the unguarded goal from a tight angle and the ball was cleared under pressure. The fans of both teams clapped in unison, a unity clap if you will, and the game had come to life. Nigeria forced more corners with their direct play. Their talisman Oshoala headed wide when connecting with a well taken corner from the left, and the team in all green were in the ascendency.

Canada ended the half in attack, two corners causing mayhem in the Nigeria defence, but the referee brought the half to a close with the scores locked at 0-0. This had been an exciting half, Nigeria had grown into the game after a cagey opening and they were unlucky not to have broken the deadlock.

The second half was underway under the bright sunshine, the fans behind Nnadozie’s goal sitting in with hands over eyes. A slow-motion tumble by Christine Sinclair then sent the referee to the VAR bunker which could only mean one thing. The referee announced the decision while the Nigerian players argued with their opponents. This was a disastrous start to the second half. Sinclair herself stepped up, but Nnadozie saved brilliantly, pushing away the rebound as Sinclair threatened to follow up. The Nigerian fans were in ecstasy, justice for them had been served. Nnadozie was mobbed by her teammates. The game was open now, and we still had over 35 minutes to go. This was another brilliantly scripted game to continue the theme of the World Cup so far. The referee was causing blood vessels to pop in the crowd, continually awarding free-kicks for the slightest contact, and it must be said that the Canadian players were making the most of her generosity.

No encroachment here, one foot on line. Penalty perfection. Almost.

Ifeoma Onumonu took a knee to the back of the head which stopped play for a short time, both sets of players racing to the sideline to get instruction from their coaches, and a raucous Mexican wave brought the volume up once more. Leon was surprisingly withdrawn with 63 minutes on the clock and her replacement Evelyne Viens had a glorious chance with her first touch, played through but she could only shoot straight at Nnadozie from close range with the whole goal to aim at.

A free kick from Payne caused chaos but Canada survived, and Payne’s corner was tempting for the header, but again Canada did enough. “All we are saying, is give us a goal” sang the Nigerian fans. Canada responded, Julia Grosso fired over via a deflection and the corner was dealt with. A brilliant break then had the crowd off their seats again as Payne flicked on for Onumonu, but the offside flag was raised after Sheridan had smothered the close-range effort. The game was wide open now, tournament organisers would have been hoping for a goal as they wouldn’t know which player to give the player of the match to. Some clown in the crowd with a whistle persisted in blowing it whenever they felt the referee should. Nigeria then brought off their main threat Oshoala with 8 minutes of additional time called. Nnadozie was almost caught napping, pushing a seemingly straightforward cross around the post. This game had life in it yet. Cloe Lacasse won a corner with time running out, showing great enterprise on the right, but that was only after a nasty challenge by Abiodun earlier in the move that earned her a red card before the corner could be taken.

Nigeria were on the attack when the referee brought the game to a close. A goalless draw did not befit the action and drama on the field. The Canada players huddled in for a post-mortem, the Nigeria players were on their knees in relief. The real winners here were Australia, seeing their rivals drop points, but that didn’t tell the story today. Nnadozie was the hero and deservedly took the player of the match and her teammates were beaming as they faced the media. Ashleigh Plumptre, as English a rose as you will hear, was quizzed about her Leicester City connection, a team that has an Aussie connection and she was relishing playing against Australia in the next game. Ifeoma Onumonu, speaking like the true American that she is, was beaming, and couldn’t remember a goalless draw as exciting as today. She echoed Plumptre’s excitement to play Australia next.

A mini mixed zone in the car park. Close and intimate.

On the contrary, the Canadian media was sombre. Sophie Schmidt praised her team’s defensive DNA but was frustrated that they had dominated and not won. Kadeisha Buchanan admitted it was tough not to get the three points, but they are at keeast off the board with one, and the Canada team see the next games as very similar against similarly physical opponents.

An occasion that looked so bleak at the outset served up an absolute classic for the sport-mad Melbourne public, and the 21,410 people that came through the gate on a chilly school day witnessed a fantastic spectacle that will surely bring more people to the FIFA World Cup games that are coming thick and fast. Should Australia be fearful of these two teams? The definite answer is ‘yes’.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: