Centre back Kadeisha Buchanan scored the breakthrough goal on the eve of halftime against a stubborn Cameroon defence Monday as Canada opened its Women’s World Cup campaign with a 1-0 win.
The Indomitable Lionesses, ranked 46th in the world, parked the bus early against No. 5 Canada.
The first-half storyline was Canada trying to play the ball and a physical Cameroon looking to stop it. The Africans strung five defenders in a line behind a holding midfielder when Canada had the ball, looking to win it back and send a long ball to a streaking forward.
At times, the Canadians seemed in search of perfection when a shot on target would have done nicely. Cameroon, meanwhile, took no prisoners with some hard-nosed play.
The breakthrough finally came in the 45th minute off a Janine Beckie corner. Buchanan, like an Exocet missile, came steaming through the penalty box at the far post, soared in the air and headed the ball downwards off the turf into the goal.
It was the fourth goal in 89 career matches for Buchanan — her third off a header and her first since February 2016. The relief for Canada was palpable.
Canada had 69 per cent of possession in the first half and seven corners to Cameroon’s two, but only managed two shots on target to Cameroon’s one.
Canada now heads 295 kilometres northeast to Grenoble where it faces New Zealand on Saturday. The 19th-ranked Football Ferns open Tuesday against the eighth-ranked Netherlands.
There were no surprises with the Canadian lineup with goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe behind a back four of Allysha Chapman, Buchanan, Shelina Zadorsky and Ashley Lawrence. Desiree Scott served as holding midfielder with Sophie Schmidt and Jessie Fleming behind a front three of Beckie, Nichelle Prince and Christine Sinclair.
Sinclair, who turns 36 on Wednesday, became Canada’s oldest player to feature at a World Cup. The star striker from Burnaby, B.C., at her fifth World Cup, is three goals from tying retired American Abby Wambach’s world record of 184 goals.
Canada’s starting 11 came into the game with a combined total of 1,120 caps, with Sinclair, Schmidt and Scott accounting for 609 of those. Still, coach Kenneth Heiner-Moller was able to field a squad with Prince the least experience starter at 50 caps.
Cameroon’s starting 11 featured just one player, goalkeeper Annette Ngo Ndom, who plays her club soccer at home. Defender Estelle Johnson, a newcomer to the team who was born in Cameroon but raised in the U.S, earned her second cap.
There were smiles aplenty from the Canadian women as they finished singing “O Canada” and Canadian flags waved in the crowd. Labbe moved to the music as the Canadians huddled before kickoff.
The game drew a modest 10,710 to Stade de la Mosson but pockets of enthusiastic supporters from both sides made their presence felt and produced a good atmosphere.
There were danger signs from Canada early with a pair of corners and a free kick that Sinclair got a head to but not on target. Cameroon responded with a brief passage of pressure of its own after a Beckie giveaway.
Canada came close in the 25th when a fine long ball from Chapman found Beckie on the byline. Her cross found Prince but her shot went high.
Canada kept coming, looking to turn the screw. The skies opened late in the first half, sending some fans in the lower seats on one side scurrying for cover.
Prince, off a fine feed from Chapman, came close in the dying minutes of the first half but a Cameroon defender got a leg on the ball to deflect it wide. Then Buchanan turned the tide.
Cameroon changed its formation in the second half, going to its bench and moving players up field in a bid for more offence. Claudine Meffometou almost had a replay of Buchanan’s goal in the 70th but her header off a corner was just wide.
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Cameroon fans did their best to cheer on their troops and the stadium broke into the wave with some 20 minutes to go.
Sinclair had chances late in the game to add to her record. A header and shot went wide before she came close in a goalmouth melee, only to have the ball bounce away in a mass of bodies.
The Canadian women came into the match unbeaten in 2019 with a 5-0-3 record. The team’s last loss was a 2-0 setback at the hands of the top-ranked U.S. last October in the CONCACAF Women’s Championship final.
While Canada’s defence has been solid since that loss, goals have been hard to come by. Canada outscored its opposition 8-1 in the eight games between the U.S. defeat and Monday’s World Cup opener.
It was the first-ever meeting between Canada and Cameroon.
The Indomitable Lionesses booked their ticket to France by finishing third at the Africa Women Cup of Nations last November. Fifteen of its 23-woman roster play their club soccer abroad — including nine in France.
Nigeria and South Africa, who finished 1-2 in Africa qualifying, lost their opening World Cup matches — 3-0 to No. 12 Norway and 3-1 to No. 13 Spain, respectively.
Cameroon reached the group of 16 in its debut at the World Cup, losing 1-0 to France four years ago in Canada. The Canadian women exited in the quarter-finals after a 2-1 loss to England.
Canada came into the match with a 1-1-1 record against African opponents at the tournament, having defeated Ghana (4-0 in 2007) and drawn and lost to Nigeria (3-3 in 1995 and beaten 1-0 in 2011).
Stade de la Mosson was built in 1972 and expanded to 35,000 seats ahead of the 1998 men’s World Cup. But for this tournament, one of the main stands has had the upper seats covered in decorative tarps to reduce capacity.
Gussied up by tournament organizers, it looked pretty good from the inside and ancient from the outside.
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press