SAO PAULO — The Rio Olympics don't officially open until Friday. But the Canadian women's soccer team helped kick off competition Wednesday with a pulsating 2-0 win over Australia despite being a player down for 70-plus minutes.
Captain Christine Sinclair set the stage for Olympic history, intercepting a pass to set up Janine Beckie's goal just 20 seconds into the game — a tap-in that enters the Games record book as the fastest in soccer competition.
Sinclair then added icing to the cake in the 80th minute, taking a beautiful long-range pass from Jessie Fleming before rounding onrushing goalkeeper Lydia Williams and scoring from distance past a defender for her 163rd international goal — and ninth at the Olympics.
Sinclair celebrated with verve, clenching her fists in excitement and perhaps a little relief in putting the game away.
"It's like expected now,'' the 21-year-old Beckie said of the 33-year-old Sinclair, Canada's greatest soccer player. "We never have any doubt that she's going to come out and perform for us. I'm still amazed and in awe of the player that she is and the person that she is.
"You know who she is on and off the field. I look up to her. The rest of the team looks up to her. It's another day at the office for her.''
Janine Beckie pauses during the soccer match between Canada and Australia for the Rio Olympics at Arena Corinthians on Wednesday in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Photo: Alexandre Schneider/Getty Images)
Said coach John Herdman: "Cometh the hour, cometh the woman. That's Christine Sinclair.''
In-between the goals, Canadian defender Shelina Zadorsky was sent off in the 19th minute and Beckie missed a 73rd-minute penalty. The fifth-ranked Matildas, meanwhile, woke up after Beckie's early goal and bossed the first half. But they couldn't take advantage and a composed Canada defended ably in the second half, counter-attacking as Australia pressed for the tying goal.
"Cometh the hour, cometh the woman. That's Christine Sinclair.''
While it is early days at the Olympic tournament — 10th-ranked Canada still has to play No. 93 Zimbabwe and No. 2 Germany in pool play — the result left Herdman's team in good position to advance to the quarter-finals.
The gritty performance may also serve as a team-building moment of some significance.
"Absolutely,'' said Sinclair. "It could have gone south very easily for us today.
"We didn't let it happen and I think it just goes to show the character we have in this group. Every single player, every single staff member, there's no give up. We pride ourselves on that. We've got each other's backs.''
Diana Matheson of Canada and Stephanie Catley of Australia in action during the soccer game between Canada and Australia women for the Rio Olympics at Arena Corinthians on Wednesday in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Photo: Alexandre Schneider/Getty Images)
Canada won bronze four years ago in London and the ambitious goal here is back-to-back podiums.
Herdman was beaming with pride in his team, which combines a veteran core with a promising cadre of youth, after the roller-coaster win.
"It was great to watch,'' he said. "As a coach, you're going grey by the second but at the same time it's the stuff that you sort of dream of in terms of your team really getting tested this early in a tournament ... It was a great day for us.''
Australia coach Alen Stajcic lamented his team's lacklustre second-half performance.
Shelina Zadorski of Canada and Michelle Heiman of Australia in action during the soccer match between Canada and Australia for the Rio Olympics at Arena Corinthians on Wednesday in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Photo: Alexandre Schneider/Getty Images)
"We're obviously very disappointed,'' he said. "The match was there for the taking and we weren't good enough to take it.''
Australia outshot Canada 22-8 (12-4 in shots on target) and had 59 per cent of the possession.
It was a game filled with twists and turns and started with a bang.
"We're obviously very disappointed.''
Canada came out pressing and it paid off immediately. Sinclair intercepted Laura Alleway's pass to defensive partner Alanna Kennedy in front of the penalty box. And when Alleway rushed out at the Canadian captain to repair the damage, Sinclair calmly rolled a perfect pass through her legs to Beckie who tapped the ball past a diving Williams.
Mexico's Oribe Peralta had the previous quickest goal when he scored within 30 seconds in the 2012 men's final against Brazil.
But the early goal proved to be a tonic for the Matildas, who came at Canada in waves for the rest of the first half. Canada's dream start soon turned into a half that probably could not end quickly enough for Herdman.
Australia began to come back and Samantha Kerr had a couple of good chances. Then Zadorsky was red-carded in the 19th minute for pulling down Michelle Heyman as the Aussie was about to go in alone on goal. Zadorsky grabbed her shoulder and Heyman, feeling the contact, went down.
French referee Stephanie Frappart pulled out her red without hesitation. Elise Kellond-Knight hit the ensuing free kick from just outside the box off the goalpost.
Herdman had to sacrifice forward Melissa Tancredi to insert defender Rebecca Quinn. Still, Australia continued to slash holes in his defence.
Goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe made a good save early on but seemed at sea as Australia sent in a series of crosses into the Canadian box. Labbe managed to clean up several Canadian messes, enduring the same kind of Jekyll and Hyde half as her team.
Australia outshot Canada 11-2 (6-1 in shots on target) in the first half and had 60 per cent of the possession. Herdman replaced Rhian Wilkinson with Allysha Chapman to open the second half as rain sprinkled and the sky turned grey.
Herdman's message at halftime was simple: "We just reminded them — 'You're winning the game. What do you need to do? Defend.' And we can do that. We showed that at the (2015) World Cup. We've showed it for the last four years, that we're a good defensive unit.''
Added Sinclair: "The best coach in the world.''
Labbe was far more assured in the second half and Canada stuck to its defence chores, often in a 5-3-1 formation.
Zadorsky will be suspended for the Zimbabwe game as a result of her ejection. Herdman had no problem with the call, instead choosing to say his 23-year-old defender had "created a moment for this group to really dig in and become a team.''
Wednesday's game was played at the Corinthians Arena, home to the Corinthians football club in the sprawling metropolis of Sao Paulo — Brazil's largest city at 20 million-plus.
Janine Beckie scores Canada's first goal during the soccer match between Canada and Australia for the Rio Olympics at Arena Corinthians on Wednesday in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Photo: Alexandre Schneider/Getty Images)
While not a sellout, the enthusiastic crowd of some 20,521 roared at every plot turn.
Canada plays Zimbabwe at the same venue Saturday and could be back later on. The pristine white stadium, built for the 2014 men's World Cup, will host the winner of Canada's group F in the quarter-finals as well as the bronze medal match.
Herdman made one tactical change from his expected lineup, with Sophie Schmidt dropping to the bench. Tancredi started up front in his 4-3-3 formation with Diana Matheson moving to the midfield.
Sinclair was the first of the Canadians out more than an hour before kickoff, taking a solo stroll to the centre of the pitch as the PA system bellowed out the Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)'' in the empty stadium. Soon there was a small group of Canadians at the same spot, arms are around each other as they held a lengthy huddle.
Herdman said Sinclair stepped aside to let Beckie take the penalty because the young attacker was feeling it.
"She let Janine have that moment and that's big for this team, really big ... This is what Christine has become now. She's sending a message out to this group of women — 'This isn't all about me. This isn't always going to be Christine leading this team. It's your turn, it's your time.'
"And I think that's what that moment symbolized ... That's a good moment for our team.''
Beckie has been hot this year, with seven goals and two assists in 12 matches. Sinclair has five goals and four assists in 14 matches in 2015.
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