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Ahead of 6th World Cup, Sinclair stills feels same butterflies as the first

Soccer legend leads Canada into World Cup opener tonight against Nigeria
Canadian players and staff pose for a team photo prior to a training session ahead of the FIFA Women’s World Cup in Melbourne, Australia, Thursday, July 20, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Neil Davidson

Australia — On the eve of her sixth FIFA Women’s World Cup, Canada captain Christine Sinclair acknowledged feeling familiar emotions.

“Honestly it’s like the same as my first World Cup,” Sinclair said some 24 hours before the seventh-ranked Canadians faced No. 40 Nigeria at Melbourne Rectangular Stadium. “I just got to check out the pitch. I still get those nerves, those butterflies, that excitement as I did back in 2003 in my first one.

“This is why you play. This is why you spend all those hours, days, training when no one is for moments like today, tomorrow. Knowing that you’re ready to go and can’t wait to represent Canada.”

The World Cup opener against Nigeria (which kicks off Thursday night Canada time and Friday lunchtime local time), will mark the 324th international appearance for the world’s all-time leading goal-scorer (190 goals).

Sinclair said if she had been asked back in 2003 about the chances of playing in six World Cups, her answer would have been “no way.”

“I’ve been very lucky in my career and had some amazing teammates along the way that helped carry me through the down times,” she said. “I can’t believe I’m here, if I’m being honest. But (I’m) just ready to go.”

While the 40-year-old from Burnaby, B.C., is far more comfortable on the pitch than she is in front of a microphone, Sinclair knows her mind. That was clear in a deft performance at the pre-match news conference where the Canada captain handled questions ranging from her team’s ongoing labour dispute with Canada Soccer to Australia’s relationship with its indigenous people.

Asked whether she could point out a teammate who deserved extra attention for their play, Sinclair declined, saying she did not want to put that pressure on a single player.

“This team is full of rock stars and world-class players,” she said. “I’m not going to single out people. I’m just going to let them enjoy the ride.”

With Nigeria also battling its federation, the pre-match availabilities produced plenty of questions about off-field issues.

“The world of women’s football is very small and we all support each other,” said Sinclair. “I feel like each women’s team has to face their battles one at a time. Obviously this last year we’ve been facing ours and Nigeria (is) now with their federation. We fully support them. Every single player in this tournament deserves the world and deserves equal treatment from their federations.”

Sinclair said an interim deal with Canada Soccer covering compensation for this tournament “is about to get done.”

“Honestly we haven’t thought about it for one second these past couple of weeks (in Australia). We’re just focusing on playing,” she added, praising injured teammate and fellow player representative Janine Beckie for shouldering the bulk of the load in the negotiations with Canada Soccer back home.

A fourth question on the labour deal was enough for Sinclair, who gently shut down the topic.

Sinclair offered a lighter tone when asked what it means taking the field as reigning Olympic champion.

“I mean it’s got a nice ring to it, I’m not going to lie,” she said, drawing laughter.

Sinclair then turned serious.

“No, it doesn’t change a thing. As (coach) Bev (Priestman) said, around the world, we’re still overlooked. Which is fine by us. We were overlooked heading into Tokyo and we showed the word what we’re capable of. I think all it has done is helped us as players, helped us as a team, feel that confidence, know that we can beat any team in the world. It’s just fuelled us.”

“Once you experience that victory, you just want to do it again.” she added. “So it’s just motivated us to once again prove to the world what we’re capable of.”

There had been a question-mark over the health of Jessie Fleming, who had seen limited action earlier in the week in the portion of practice open to the media. The 25-year-old Chelsea midfielder was first out of the dressing room Thursday morning, however.

“Jessie trained today so we should have full squad available for the game,” said Priestman.

Nichelle Prince and Deanne Rose are both on the road back from Achilles injuries. Priestman said while Rose is ahead of Prince, in terms of timelines, both forwards are ahead of schedule. How many minutes either can play at this stage is an unknown, at least outside of the Canadian camp.

Like Canada, Nigeria features a 40-year-old captain in Onome Ebi who is also at her sixth World Cup.

The veteran centre back made history four years ago in France when she became the first African footballer, male or female, to appear in five World Cups.

Brazil’s Formiga leads all women with seven World Cup appearances. Formiga, who also appeared in seven Olympics, retired from international football in November 2021 at the age of 43.

Asked about Ebi, Nigeria coach Randy Waldrum said she is a lot like Sinclair in terms of influence on and off the field.

“So I know what she brings to Canada and what’s she’s all about … I think Onome is very much the same,” said Waldrum, an American who coached against Sinclair at club level while he was in charge of the NWSL’s Houston Dash. “What she brings to us and Nigeria is exactly what Christine brings to Canada.”

After the Nigeria contest, the Canadian team flies 2,720 kilometres west to Perth to face No. 22 Ireland before returning to Melbourne for a July 31 date with No. 10 Australia that is expected to decide who tops Group B.

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