Sinclair seeks elusive Women's World Cup title in 6th appearance for Canada

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Nigeria women's national team head coach Randy Waldrum, second right, stands with his players and staff for a prayer ahead of a practice session in Brisbane, Australia, Tuesday, July 18, 2023. Nigeria will play Canada in their opening Women's World Cup game in Melbourne on July 21. (AP Photo/Katie Tucker)

AUCKLAND – The most prolific scorer in international soccer begins play in her sixth Women’s World Cup when Christine Sinclair leads Canada against Nigeria in a Friday match played in Melbourne.

It will likely be a last World Cup for Sinclair, who gets the same anxiousness at age 40 as she did when she made her global debut 20 years ago.

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“It’s the same as my first World Cup. I still get those nerves, those butterflies of excitement as I did back in 2003 in my first one,” Sinclair said. "This is why you play, this is why you spend all those hours and days training while no one else is. Can’t wait to represent Canada.”

The Canada captain is undeniably her nation's biggest soccer star, having won a pair of Olympic bronze medals before finally winning a gold at the Tokyo Games. What has eluded her is soccer’s preeminent trophy, and Canada has appeared in every World Cup since missing the inaugural tournament in 1991.

Canada and Nigeria are in Group B, which also includes co-host Australia and Ireland.

Sinclair credits her longevity to her ability to adapt her game. Once a forward, she’s now shifted to a more midfield role, orchestrating the team’s play.

“I’m the type of person that’s never satisfied, always thinks there’s room for improvement, whether it’s individually or collectively as a team," Sinclair said. "That drives me on a day-to-day basis.”

So does her desire to finally win a World Cup.

“There’s six to eight teams probably in the world that can win this thing. And we’re definitely one of those,” she added. “We’ve got the right combination of experience and young ones experiencing their first World Cup. It’s going to be exciting.”

Sinclair is probably America’s best-known non-U.S. women’s soccer player. She was on the University of Portland’s two NCAA championship teams and has played since 2013 for the Portland Thorns of the National Women’s Soccer League.

She’s also played for the Canadian national team since 2000 and has scored 190 international goals, far more than the men’s leader, Cristiano Ronaldo, who has 123.

Nigeria, meanwhile, is ranked 40th in the world but has been to all nine editions of the Women's World Cup. Placed in such a tough group, the Super Falcons will need some surprising results to reach the knockout stage for the third time in team history.

Led by coach Randy Waldrum, an American who is currently the head coach of Pittsburgh's women's team, Nigeria gained confidence with wins over Costa Rica, Haiti and New Zealand in its last three matches.

Canada lost four of its last five games — but all four losses were to teams ranked 11th or higher in the world. The previous meeting between Canada and Nigeria was a 2-2 draw in 2022.

Off the field, the Canadian women are in a contract dispute with their federation that has stretched on for more than a year. Sinclair has said a funding agreement for the team is close but not completed.

“We’re just not focused on it anymore. It’s about to get done," she said. "Honestly we haven’t thought about it for one second these past couple weeks. Just focusing on playing.”

PHILIPPINES-SWITZERLAND

Philippines will make its World Cup debut — men or women — in a Group A match against Switzerland in Dunedin.

Although it is the Filipinas first time on the global stage, they aren't facing a veteran Switzerland squad. Switzerland is making only its second World Cup appearance, first since the 2015 tournament.

Philippines qualified for the tournament through the 2022 Asia Cup, where the Filipinas lost in the semifinals in their best performance at an Asian Cup and World Cup qualification.

Still, Philippines is the lowest-ranked team in a group that includes co-host New Zealand and Norway. The women won five of their last six matches headed into the tournament.

Switzerland got into the tournament with a dramatic playoff victory over Wales in October. Fabienne Humm scored in the 121st-minute to avoid sending the game to penalties, getting the team into the World Cup.

Switzerland in 2015 advanced to the knockout rounds but was eliminated in a 1-0 loss to Canada. The Swiss women have not won a match in seven outings since the win over Wales.

Swiss forward Ramona Bachmann wasn't worried about her team's lead-in to the tournament.

“We’re going to build on our strengths. We’re a team that is aggressive," she said. "They don’t really know what’s coming, we have different weapons.”

SPAIN-COSTA RICA

Alexia Putellas, considered one of the best playmakers in the world, leads Spain into its third World Cup appearance in a Group C match against Costa Rica at Wellington.

Putellas, who plays professionally for Barcelona, made the team despite an ACL injury that forced her to miss the 2022 Women’s Euro. The 2022 FIFA Player of the Year and Ballon d’Or winner trained alone upon the team’s arrival in New Zealand, prompting speculation that she wasn’t fully fit.

But coach Jorge Vilda said Putellas will be available Friday.

The Spanish team has been embroiled in controversy since last September, when 15 players signed a letter complaining about their coach and conditions in the national setup. Three of those players were named to the World Cup squad.

“If these players are here now, it’s because they are committed with the national team,” Vilda said after announcing his roster.

Costa Rica is playing in the tournament for the second time and is in a group that includes Japan and Zambia. Costa Rica, coincidentally, opened its first World Cup in 2015 with a 1-1 draw against Spain.

Costa Rica comes into the tournament off one win, two draws and eight losses in its last 11 matches. The only victory was against Haiti at the Central American and Caribbean Games earlier this month.

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