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A look back at Canada's Women's World Cup debut: Lots to learn in so little time

06/01/2015 11:11 EDT | Updated 06/01/2016 05:59 EDT
TORONTO - Saturday's opening of the Women's World Cup will bring back memories for Sylvie Beliveau.

It marks 20 years to the day that Canada, coached by Beliveau, made its World Cup debut in a 3-2 loss to England. Goals by Helen Stoumbos in the 87th minute and Geri Donnelly in the 91st made for a wild ending at the Olympia Stadium in Helsingborg, Sweden.

Times have changed at the women's showcase tournament. The World Cup is bigger, better and far more high-profile. The Canadian women are paid to play soccer.

There are 24 teams instead of the 12 in 1995.

This summer's first-round schedule sees Canada plays games June 6, 11 and 15, far more forgiving than 20 years ago.

Back in 1995, Canada's tournament was over by June 11 and the whole competition lasted just 14 days. The Canadian women played three games in five days which including making a 725-kilometre train ride overnight from Helsingborg to Gavle.

Beliveau, who today is the Canadian Soccer Association's long-term player-development manager, still marvels at the schedule.

"Those women never complained," said Beliveau, who was 31 and the only female head coach at the '95 tournament. "They lived it, because it was their top competition — a moment in life that you don't want to miss."

Canada, giving up two second-half goals, tied Nigeria 3-3 before being thumped 7-0 by Even Pellerud's Norway. Pellerud went on to coach Canada at two World Cups.

Finishing third in its group, Canada failed to advance out of the first round at a tournament still in its infancy.

FIFA listed the attendance for the Nigeria game at 250, with 655 on hand for the England contest and 2,715 for the Norway match.

"We were walking down the streets and people would go 'Who are you? What's happening in our country?' People didn't even know," said Beliveau.

Canada had failed to qualify for the inaugural 12-team World Cup in 1991, when CONCACAF sent just one team to the finals. Beliveau was an assistant to Neil Turnbull then.

The Canadian women won their first four qualifying games in the region, outscoring the opposition 23-0 before falling 5-0 to the U.S. in the deciding match. The Americans went on to win the '91 World Cup, defeating Norway 2-1 in the final.

After '91, the Canadian women went two years without competition.

The structure of Canadian women's soccer was still largely under construction. There was little money to fund the program so Beliveau had to find ways to connect with players any way she could, be it using the World University Games or giving players training programs for home.

With the U.S. the defending champion, CONCACAF got another berth for the 1995 World Cup which opened the way for Canada to join the Americans despite losing to them 6-0 in the final qualifying game.

The Canadian roster included Isabelle Morneau, just 19 at the time, as well as Stoumbos, Donnelly, Charmaine Hooper, Andrea Neil, Michelle Ring, Janine Wood, Joan McEachern, Angela Kelly and Silvana Burtini.

Today, Beliveau and those 10 players are in Canada's Soccer Hall of Fame.

"I'm so happy for them," Beliveau said of those players. "Because they played the game at a moment where they were still establishing a status for the women's game."

Beliveau has not forgotten the tournament.

Two of England's goals came via penalties. "It helped change the game," she said diplomatically of a game in which the Canadian side deserved better.

Canada led Nigeria 2-0 before settling for a tie against an African side whose lack of defensive discipline was offset by blazing speed and a bag full of offence.

The final game against eventual champion Norway was "a hard lesson," said Beliveau, whose tired team conceded four times after the 70th minute.

Every World Cup brings something different, setting new standards. In '95, it was Norway's zone defence.

"It was like trying to find solutions right on the spot," Beliveau recalled of facing the Norwegians.

Twenty years on, Beliveau wishes she had the experience she had now at the '95 tournament. Ever the coach and evaluator, she believes some things could have been done differently.

It's a view honed by years in the sport.

Beliveau became a FIFA coaching instructor in 1998, has been part of FIFA's technical study group since 1999, attending every Women's World Cup since as well as a string of age-group championships and two Olympics Games — and was appointed to its technical and development committee in January 2004.

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