The weather outside was frightfully cold. The weather inside was delightfully toasty. Still, Thailand women’s national team soccer coach Nuengrutai Srathongvian had her fluffy brown winter jacket zipped up tight as she answered questions following a training site inspection at the RA Centre yesterday in Ottawa’s south end.
Thailand joins fellow newcomer Côte d’Ivoire and powerhouses Germany and Norway in Group B play when the FIFA Women’s World Cup Canada 2015™ rolls into the nation’s capital next summer. The jokes were flying fast and furious that Mother Nature would indeed tone things down a bit for the June 6 – July 5 event spread across six Canadian cities. For now, though, that jacket was staying put. “We had been expecting cold, not quite like this, but the people in the city have made the experience of our first time here great and wonderful,” Srathongvian said through an interpreter. “We’re excited to test ourselves and play against the top teams in the world. This is a great chance for us.”
It’ll be the first time at the big dance for both Thailand and the Côte d’Ivoire. Fellow group members Germany and Norway, meanwhile, have shared many waltzes across women soccer’s grandest stage, each appearing in all six previous tourneys with three titles between them. All four nations were picked from a pool of a record 24 teams during Saturday’s Official Draw showcase at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que. Team representatives stayed behind for a few days to check out the spanking new 24,000-seat Lansdowne Stadium, including dressing rooms, the mixed media zone and VIP areas, and scouted potential training sites such as the Richcraft Recreation Complex in Kanata and Algonquin College, among others.
Srathongvian only took over the national team coaching duties in April, but led the War Elephants to a fifth-place finish at the AFC Asian Women’s Cup, including a 2-1 victory over host Vietnam in front of 18,000 spectators in Ho Chi Minh City.
Thailand, which employs a short passing and quick tempo game, hasn’t played at a FIFA competition at any level since 2004. Srathongvian, the first female coach of the Southeast Asia-based national team, looked relaxed as she flipped a FIFA soccer ball from one hand to another. She’d like her players to feel confident in making the leap to world class competition and increase their stamina and strength. “All the teams we will face have big players so we have to prepare really, really well,” said Srathongvian. “We are not coming back here to just play some games, but to pass over into the next round.”
Côte d’Ivoire, a country in West Africa with approximately 20 million people, but with less than 25,000 registered soccer players, claimed third spot at the African Championship. The Elephants – yes, like Thailand, that’s the team nickname – don’t rely on star players, but rather a group effort. “This is a great celebration of women’s football and an honour to be in such a group of world class teams,” Côte d’Ivoire head coach Clementine Toure said through an interpreter. “We’re going to work on all aspects of our game … tactical, physical and especially mental. We learned from our competition in Africa that the mental game is the most important. But we will play our hearts out and with great spirit.”
Looking for a glimpse of soccer royalty? Boy, do we have a view for you. The Germany-Norway clash at Lansdowne Stadium on June 11 is the marquee match of a pair of Group B doubleheaders that begins on June 7. Germany’s list of accomplishments is too long to list, but here are some highlights: they’ve won the World Cup twice, they’re six-time defending European champions (eight overall) and they captured the FIFA Under-20 Women’s World Cup in Montreal this past August. What’s more, German national team coach Silvia Neid is a two-time winner of the FIFA World Coach of the Year award.
Alright, already. Over to you, Norway.
The Scandinavian juggernauts have won the World Cup, Olympic and European championship trifecta. Not even the mighty Germans can make that claim. “Norway-Germany could be a final,” said Norway head coach Even Pellerud, who looked very Calvin Klein-esque wearing a blue sports jacket and blue jeans. “They’re two teams with several decades of tough rivalry and great traditions, but we have to be respectful of all opponents. Thailand and Côte d’Ivoire have a lot to think about and prepare for because the World Cup is unlike anything they’ve experienced before.” Pellerud served as Canadian women’s coach from 1999 to 2008 and took the Canucks to a pair of World Cups in the process. He also led Norway to medals at the 1991 (silver) and 1995 (gold) events as well as bronze at the 1996 Olympics.
Moncton, Montreal, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Vancouver (including the July 5 final) are the other cities hosting a portion of the 52 matches. The top two teams from each of the six groups, plus the four highest third-place finishers, will advance. The top ten ranked nations in the world all qualified, including top-ranked United States, defending World Cup champion Japan and No. 8 Canada, so it’s the usual suspects.
Lansdowne Stadium will also be the venue for Mexico versus France and South Korea against Spain on June 17, plus Round of 16 knockout matches on June 20 and 22, and a June 26 quarterfinal.
The Mexican contingent begin Group F action in Moncton, a location familiar to them as it was one of the match locations during the FIFA Under-20 Women’s World Cup earlier this summer. Mexico, which went winless in its initial World Cup appearance in 1999, but managed a pair of draws against England and New Zealand at the 2011 World Cup, secured third place in CONCACAF qualifying by virtue of a late comeback and eventual win in extra time over Trinidad and Tobago. France, meanwhile, breezed through its European qualifying group by winning all 10 matches by a 54-3 scoreline. The French reached the World Cup semifinal in 2011 and served notice they belong amongst the top guns by blanking the Germans 2-0 in Offenbach last October. “Everybody is waiting for that game against France,” said Mexican national team manager Gerardo Lepe, who joked he was raring to go skiing in his puffy black and green winter jacket. “We are thinking we have a good chance to advance to the knockout stage. We will be very happy to return here and play for a World Cup in Canada.”
Spanish captain Veronica Boquete, a strong contender for FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year 2014, and goalscoring phenom Natalia Pablos helped the Spanish win its European group and qualify for the World Cup for the first time. South Korean striker Park Eunsun won the Golden Boot with six goals during the AFC Women’s Asian Cup.
For tickets to the FIFA Women’s World Cup Canada 2015™, please visit: www.FIFA.com/Canada2015
Chris Kallan is a member of the FIFA Women’s World Cup Canada 2015TM Ottawa Host City Writing Team.