As England look to make history in Saturday night’s Women’s World Cup quarter-final against Canada here, the head coach Mark Sampson has turned to psychological warfare in a bid to rattle the nerves of his team’s opponents.
In front of 55,000 fans at a sold-out BC Place stadium, the Canadians will get huge support in what will be a hostile atmosphere for Sampson’s side. But that can work in favour of his players, insists the coach, in their quest to become the first England team to reach the semi-finals of a Women’s World Cup.
“The most aggressive team in the tournament”, as Sampson describes a Canada team managed by an Englishman in Newcastle-born John Herdman, could buckle under the weight of expectation.
“Since we’ve been in Vancouver, we’ve felt a huge sense of anticipation around this Canadian team,” said Sampson. “The nation is willing them to do well, to keep progressing, and we know that we’re going to face not only a big crowd but also a whole nation behind their team.
“But I always feel the most pressure you’re under as a player is when the people who are close to you are in the ground. Your family, your friends, your club team-mates. At Wembley in front of 45,000 [November’s 3-0 defeat by Germany] we really felt that. We wanted to do something special for them. But that’s not something we’re going to feel now, that’s what the Canadians are going to feel.
“So the more difficult we can make this game for them, the more the pressure’s going to come from the crowd, the more pressure’s going to come from our team – and we’ll be aiming to turn up the notches on the pressure cooker and make sure Canada are feeling the heat.”
Sampson’s psyching out was extended to the referee, the Uruguayan Claudia Umpierrez, warning that she should not be swayed by the crowd when making decisions. All too often in the tournament so far, claimed the England coach, refereeing decisions have gone Canada’s way.
“They’ve been awarded one very dubious penalty,” he reckoned, “and we can look at the fouls that have been awarded against them. They’ve conceded one penalty and they could have conceded five.
“We’ve got a qualified referee on our staff and, looking back at the games, he says that the number of fouls that have been awarded against them could have been quadrupled. I just hope the referee realises there are 22 players on the pitch.”
Umpierrez could have her work cut out if the game is as attritional as Sampson anticipates. Encounters between the two teams have been close and hard-fought in recent years, though England have had the edge with four successive victories before losing 1-0 to Herdman’s team in a pre-tournament friendly last month.
“I look at evidence,” said Sampson, “I look at what’s happened. Whether Canada are overly aggressive is open to interpretation, but without a shadow of a doubt we’re playing the most aggressive team in this tournament.
“We’re all up for that fight, though. You look at the players we’ve got and none of them will shy away from confrontation. But let’s not get away from the fact that aggression is part of the game. This England team has it, and we’ll make sure that physically we’re ready for a huge, huge challenge.”
England are in the quarter-finals after a 2-1 round-of-16 win over Norway on Monday. If Sampson’s side progress to Wednesday’s semi-final in Edmonton, where they would meet either the world champions Japan or the surprise quarter-finalists Australia, it would be through a rare World Cup knockout victory for either the men’s or women’s team.
“This is not a nation that is used to being successful at World Cups,” noted Sampson. “So we’re fully aware of the opportunities and the challenges faced. Look at the facts in terms of us beating Norway. That was – at men’s or women’s level – only our third World Cup knockout win since 1990, and that’s a big statement for this team.
“Whether we’re the men’s team or the women’s, England’s progress at a World Cup gives us a unique opportunity to promote the sport back home. It’s an opportunity for us to progress as far as we can in this tournament and give the women’s game a huge boost.”
England’s heartbreak: Quarter-final woes
England’s three quarter-finals have all ended in defeat:
1995: England 0 Germany 3
England, making their debut in the finals, and featuring current assistant manager Marieanne Spacey were well-beaten by a Germany team that reached the final.
2007: England 0 United States 3
Making their first finals appearance for a dozen years England again made the last eight but were outclassed by the Americans.
2011: England 1 France 1 (France won 4-3 on penalties)
Leading through Jill Scott until the 88th minute, England led again in the shootout, but went out when captain Faye White missed the crucial kick.