Canada is hosting the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup, which began on June 5. Their national women's team is set to compete in the second stage next week with the help of Josee Belanger, a native of Coaticook, Quebec.
Vermont Edition spoke to Sportsnet reporter Sandra Prusina about Belanger and the Canadian team's prospects moving forward.
This year marks Belanger's World Cup debut, despite her being 29 years old with years of experience on the pitch. Belanger suffered an injury before the 2011 tournament that prevented her from competing in Germany.
"Her injury to her ankle was so severe that she took time off of soccer," says Prusina. "I think she was so frustrated with the progression of her injury, or lack thereof, [that] she almost decided to hang them up for good."
Canadian head coach John Herdman gave Belanger a call to invite her back. At the time, she was coaching soccer in Quebec, and was hesitant to get back on the pitch. "He actually went to Quebec to speak to her in person, and that's basically all she needed," says Prusina.
On her role as a fullback
Belanger is playing a new position on the women's national team: right fullback. "She's predominately an attacking midfielder, or she plays as a forward. That's what she's known for," says Prusina. "She's a very skilled player — very good with her feet. She can put the ball in the back of the net."
"Canada has been hit quite hard with injuries, and because of her style of play, [Herdman] has put her as a right back," Prusina adds.
Prusina says that Herdman focuses on having a "modern fullback," or a fullback that can be both responsible defensively and a major asset on counterattacks moving up the pitch.
"Josee [has] only played four games in that position now and she's done an incredible job," says Prusina. "She has fit in seamlessly. You can tell how skilled she really is when she has the opportunity to drive on the right side of the pitch."
Belanger's new role on the field allows her to display her array of talents. "Not only is she very good offensively, obviously, she's creative and can attack well. But she's also very strong. She's physically one of the strongest players on the team," says Prusina. "That's what makes her such a good defender. She can keep the opposition to the outside and beat them to balls, and in a one-on-one situation, she can usually beat you."
"I'm sure going into this tournament, if you had asked her a few months ago if someone said, 'Hey, can you imagine playing a defender in the world cup?' she would have laughed," says Prusina.
The final game of the first stage was held in Montreal at the Olympic Stadium June 15. "They haven't played in Montreal in many, many years, so this was the first experience for Josee to play in Quebec, which is huge," says Prusina.
On the finale
Canada is in Group A, and so far they have won one game and tied two games in the first stage. The victory was their opening match, a 1-0 lead over China. The draws were both low-scoring matches, resulting in final scores of 0-0 against New Zealand and 1-1 against the Netherlands.
Prusina is uncertain of Canada's chance at taking the cup. "I can truthfully say I don't think that Canada has played as well they could," says Prusina. "I don't know if it's jitters of being the host nation ... I think it might be psychological. But at the same time they're not scoring goals."
"In a tournament like this, defense will only get you so far," says Prusina. "So they absolutely need to put the ball in the back of the net."
The Canadian team has scored twice in the Cup tournament. One was a penalty kick scored by captain Christine Sinclair during the match against China, the second was a goal scored by Ashley Lawrence during open play against the Netherlands.
"[Lawrence] was actually the first person since 2007 to score for Canada at a women's world cup that wasn't Christine Sinclair, so that for me was an incredible stat," says Prusina.
Canada has had trouble beating the top ranked teams over the past five years, leading Prusina to doubt Canada's ability to beam them this year. "That's certainly not a knock on Canada by any means, but that just tells you how good the top teams are," says Prusina. These top-ranked teams have more options sitting on the bench, and so Prusina says Canada, ranked 8th, typically does best against teams in the same ranking group, which are teams ranked 6-10.
On Canada's role as host
The public's reaction to Canada's role as World Cup host has been positive. "Obviously you have people who love soccer in Canada," says Prusina. "We have a lot of immigrants here who grew up watching soccer [and] playing soccer. You have that niche market that watches soccer 365 days a year."
This sort of tournament connects these year-round fans to individuals who don't necessarily watch soccer but want to support the Canadian athletes. "We're putting our country on display," Prusina says.
"Canadians as a whole aren't as obviously patriotic as some counties are, but we really really do love this country, and we are so proud to see it on the world stage," says Prusina.
Canada's next match is June 21 against Switzerland at the BC Place Stadium in Vancouver, British Columbia.