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  1. Miedema is delighted to be here and blazing the trail for young Dutch players to follow and the pressure that comes with that. "I felt a lot of pressure the first games from my home country," she told reporters at training on Friday. "Not that much from FIFA or whatever. It's exciting for us to play. We know that we can play way more tournaments after this, so we're just here to learn and get the experience but also to get the good result." As to how well Miedema has coped with the pressure so far, well the nerves got the better of her before the Netherland's first game against New Zealand, but they've been improving. "Well, I was sick before the first game, so I think not all that well!" she joked. "Now it's fine. Now we know what we have to do. We know that we can play our own way of soccer. We're getting better in the tournament so we have a good hope for the next game." That next game now comes tonight against Japan. Expectations of the side from within the country are certainly higher than from the outside looking in. A good high-scoring qualification campaign and some exciting talent will do that in a football mad nation. How many outside of the Netherlands expected them to qualify from the group? Hard to say, but finishing third, which they did, would likely have been the first goal to achieve from the tournament. Anything better and expectations exceeded. "It's great," Miedema says of qualifying to the knockout stages. "We had to wait till all the other games were done and then we realised that we were one of the best 16 teams." Miedema's enjoyed her first World Cup, as have her teammates. They looked good in a strong 1-0 win over New Zealand, really should have taken something from the 1-0 loss to China, and had there been a few more minutes left in their final match, I wouldn't have been surprised to see them grab a second, and a win, against Canada. The games, and now tonight's Round of 16 match, have seen the Dutch go from coast to coast, which is tiring for those used to it, never mind anyone else. But like so many of the young players in this tournament seem to do with a multitude of things, Miedema just takes it in her stride. "Yeah, that's a lot of travel," Miedema admitted to AFTN. "We played first in Edmonton then back to Montreal, then we came here. You get tired from a lot of travelling, of course, and the time difference the whole time. But you know that you'd have to do that before you came here, so it's fine for me." Travel aside, finishing third in Group A could yet prove beneficial for the Dutch. They're in the easier half of the draw, avoiding a number of the big hitters and four of the top five ranked teams in world. Miedema isn't looking too far ahead just yet but she knows the Dutch dodged a few bullets. "Yeah I think so, but first we have to beat Japan!," Miedema told us about the half of the draw the Netherlands find themselves in. "That's a really hard game. We have a lot of respect for the whole team. We know they were the World Champions the last edition of this, so we just have to have a good day and we maybe have a little chance then." The Netherlands now face a Japan side who have looked solid and composed, if not startlingly impressive. They're well organised at the back and only let in one goal in their three Group C matches, but they only scored four in the process. Not exactly something to strike the fear into other teams and it's something the Dutch feel can be exploited and pave their route to a shock result through the attacking firepower they possess. "Yeah of course," Miedema told us. "If we keep them to nil for a long time and they don't score, we really have a chance. We have really good attackers, like Manon Melis and Lieke Martens on the outside and then [Danielle] van de Donk at 10, so we know that we can score every game. So then we have a chance to get a win and we're hoping for that scenario." The chemistry within the Netherlands side has slowly been building as the tournament has gone on. Miedema has noticed it on the pitch and she's hoping it just continues to improve to keep the Dutch around the tournament that little bit longer. "We didn't play together for a long time before we came here, so you always needs some matches to get into your best field play," Miedema told reporters. "Now you know that it's getting better. When you're on the field, you can feel that. I hope we can do the same against Japan and a little bit better than against Canada." Miedema herself cuts an impressive figure. She's confident, refreshingly honest in interviews, yet still has the teenage side to her, giggling during answers. She's a very endearing player. She may not have bagged her first World Cup goal yet, but Miedema is a world star in the making and has been since bursting onto the national team scene in 2013. Miedema made her club debut for Dutch side SC Heerenveen aged just 15 and her goalscoring prowess (she scored a staggering 78 goals in 69 appearances) soon earned her a move to Bayern Munich who went unbeaten to win the Bundesliga title. Wearing the number 10 shirt with Bayern has seen her compared to Dutch compatriot Arjen Robben, only much more likeable. Others compare her to Robin van Persie, who she had previously said she models her game. It's the usual lazy journalistic tendency to tag any up and coming player with that of a player of old. It's bad enough in the men's game, never mind when they start crossing genders. Miedema laughs it all off, but has the perfect retort for it. "I don't [refer to myself like that], but all the media's doing that," Miedema smiled. "It's a great honour to get that name, but I just hope that parent later say that their daughter play like Miedema or Martens or Melis. I think that's way cooler." The Netherlands are making their first World Cup appearance, much to my annoyance after they eliminated Scotland in the European playoffs! But they are most certainly a team on the rise. Their U19 side won the 2014 European Championships and many of those players are expected to break in and bolster the senior side in the next couple of years. The Dutch will also be hosting the next senior Euros in 2017. Having seen the buzz around hosts Canada, Miedema can't wait to be a part of that in her own home country. For now though, she realises the importance that the current squad and their performance at this World Cup will mean to the women's program in Holland. And also the opportunity for herself and the other players to influence and be role models to all the young girls back in the Netherlands, where the women's side of the game is not always taken all that seriously. "I think it's important," Miedema said. "We play the European Championships in about two years in the Netherlands, so this is the chance to get it bigger in our country. That I'm one of the role models, is cool. "It's getting better now but you still have a lot of people who think that women's soccer is stupid. We just have to change that and I think we'll have a great tournament in two years. "But if you compare it with men's soccer, you cannot do that. We're not that fast but I think our way to play is pure. We don't care about money and stuff. We just play because we have fun and I think you see that on the pitch." And expect to see it on the BC Place pitch tonight.
  2. Cameroon are no strangers to World Cup shocks. They have thrilled football fans worldwide with their play in the Men's World Cup in recent times. In particular, their fantastic Roger Milla inspired run to the quarter-finals of Italia '90 will long live fondly in my memory and many others. While the Indomitable Lions have qualified for six of the last seven World Cup Finals, the women are appearing in their very first ones here in Canada, after qualifying as African runners-up to Nigeria. Their appearance builds on their first ever qualification for an Olympics in London three years ago and sees the continued rise of the team under their charismatic coach Enow Ngachu. He never seems to be without a big smile on his face. Ngachu has been the coach of the team since 2004 and his building work is now reaping some real rewards and producing some impressive talent, perhaps none more so than Monday's hat-trick heroine Gaelle Enganamouit. For the Cameroon coach, it was all about showing that continued improvement on the world stage. "Our main objective was to do better than 2012," Ngachu told reporters at Thursday's pre-match press conference. "In the last Olympics games in London, we conceded 11 goals, scored only one and had three defeats. "We've been working with this group for the past seven years together. They started with the under-17. After the game against Ecuador, they have started dreaming, but we need to be humble. We have attained our objective." So just what has been behind the team's turnaround and recent successes? "As a coach, after each game, you must go back to the drawing board and see what went wrong and we discovered that in 2012," Ngachu added. "We made tactical errors. Everybody was young. "We've worked very hard. We want to exist on defending first before attacking. We're quite happy because in the last African Nations Cup, we conceded less goals and we had the best goalkeeper in the tournament. So it means we've improved a lot and can only be happy." Going into the Ecuador game, it was hard to know what to expect from either side. Ecuador were ranked 48th in the world, Cameroon 53rd. You wouldn't have been surprised by a draw or a narrow win for either side. But the Africans produced a hammering that caught, I think, pretty much all of us by surprise. Right now, we don't know if that 6-0 scoreline was because Cameroon were good or Ecuador were just really, really bad. Maybe it was a mixture of both. What 19th placed Switzerland do to the South Americans in the first game this evening, will perhaps be a better indicator as to how Cameroon might fare in the second against Japan. It's a match Ngachu and his squad are relishing, no matter how daunting it may be and how much of a one-sided scoreline could be doled out by the defending champs and the side ranked 4th in the world right now. "It's a dream come true playing against the Champions," Ngachu said. "It'll be another experience for the Cameroon national team. We know it's going to be very tough but the best team will win." Japan looked exciting and patchy in their narrow 1-0 win over Switzerland on Monday. It took a debatable penalty for them to get the job done and they had a few narrow escapes and had to thank some poor Swiss finishing for coming away with all three points in the end. They should make it six out of six tonight. On paper, there is only one possible result. But football's not played on paper. Japan coach Norio Sasaki genuinely seemed concerned about Cameroon's attacking firepower in his own press conference on Thursday. Ngachu countered by saying he was concerned by both Japan's attack and defence. Cameroon played relaxed and were a joy to watch against Ecuador. With no pressure, comes more free-slowing football and Ngachu said you can expect the same against Japan. "We're excited to play against Japan," Ngachu admitted. "For us, Japan, so far, is the best in the world. My girls are excited. Over the past years they've been watching the Japanese team over the TV. Today, most of them can recite the names of the Japanese players. It's just like in Playstation. You play against the best team in the world. "They're quite excited but we don't have pressure on our side. The Japanese will be having that pressure. We don't have any pressure, so we'll play as usual and if we can have a positive result then fine." Whichever side wins, they'll be guaranteeing themselves a spot in the Round of 16. But after banging in six goals in their first game, barring two horrible defensive collapses, Cameroon look set to be a top third placed finisher at the very worst, no matter how they fare against Japan and Switzerland. Do the squad dare to allow themselves to dream and look beyond the group stages at what may lie in store? Striker Gabrielle Aboudi Onguene doesn't want to get too carried away but the goal deluge against Ecuador has certainly got them believing. "I would say that mentally it is a good thing to score," she told reporters in translated French. "It shelters us, it protects us a little bit. As was said, we came here with the objective of doing better than 2012. We dream of making it out of this first round. We're going to stay focused. So why not? Keep scoring, so that we can advance." Ngachu knows Japan head into the game as very heavy favourites and should win comfortably, but whatever the result in this one, the impact that his Cameroon side have made back home has already been immense and if they can advance beyond the group stages, then what it will do for women's soccer in the country will be seismic. "Football is full of surprises," he said. "If we can create that by going through to the next round, then it's going to be very fine, and I believe if we do that, it's going to have a positive impact back in Cameroon. "From the feedback we've been getting, many young girls have started playing soccer and that is the target for the individual Lionesses of Cameroon."
  3. Recognised as the finest Japanese female player to have ever played the game, Sawa made here first appearance in a World Cup Finals in 1995, playing three games in Sweden, as Japan went out at the quarter final stage following a 4-0 loss to the US. After three appearances in each of the next three tournaments in the US and China, Sawa came to prominence at the world level with a stellar tournament performance in Germany in 2011. Sawa played all six of Japan's matches as they lifted their first World Cup trophy following a dramatic penalty shoot-out win against the US in the Final. With Japan looking set to lose out in extra time, Sawa hit a stunning equaliser with three minutes remaining to send the game to penalties. That goal was her tournament leading fifth of the Finals, earning Sawa the Golden Boot as top-scorer, along with the Golden Ball award as the Best Player. Her performance also saw her named the 2011 Female World Player of the Year. The support the Japanese girls received back home during the last World Cup was exceptional and Sawa is hoping for more of the same this time around. "Many, many people supported us," Sawa said. "With that power we could win the title again." Sawa made her professional debut in Japan's L-League in 1991, aged just 12. Her international debut came at 15 in 1993 and her World Cup Finals debut aged 16. With nearly 25 years experience in the women's game, Sawa has seen a lot change, especially in her home country. "Talking especially about Japan, before, like about 20 years ago, the number of registered players was very small," she revealed. "Also the skills and technique were not enough. It's been very long from that time until 2011, but year by year I think we've developed." There's been a lot of talk about the legacy of the women's game in Canada after this tournament, but Japan's win four years ago sparked a marked increase in interest in the women's game in the country. After 2011, the awareness and attention among the Japanese people changed dramatically and the country went from 35,000 registered players at girls to senior level before 2011 to its current level of almost 50,000. Still not phenomenal numbers for a country of 127 million but a step in the right direction. To put that into perspective, there are 4.8 million registered female players worldwide, with Canada and the US making up 47% of that number. Sawa will be hoping to generate more interest this time around and add to her 18 World Cup Finals appearances this month. Although no-one else has reached that milestone of appearing in six tournaments before, the Japanese midfielder is likely to find herself having company with that honour in Canada, with Brazilian midfielder Formiga also poised to reach the six tournament milestone. An appearance for Sawa tonight, however, will see her reach the achievement first. It will be quite the feat for Sawa, but one which the 36-year-old looked like missing out upon after falling out of favour with head coach Norio Sasaki in recent months through injury and a dip in form. Sawa wasn't selected for Japan's 23 woman squad for the Algarve Cup tournament in March this year. A major setback for the midfielder's hopes, but after Japan finished second bottom of their group, and ninth overall in the tournament, Sasaki had a rethink and felt that the squad needed a player of Sawa's experience for the upcoming Finals in Canada. Sasaki's late change of heart filled Sawa with boy joy and relief. "It's a very special feeling to wear the jersey of the national team," Sawa said. "I want to play for the team and for Japan in order to get a good result in the World Cup." With her recent injury concerns, is Sawa ready to go in the tournament? She certainly looked the part at training, cutting a striking figure with her long ponytail, and the veteran feels she's ready to play a key role once again for Japan on the world stage, but she's not taking anything for granted. "I am ready to play 90 minutes but it depends on the head coach," Sawa continued. "It's his decision whether I will play on the pitch or not but I am ready." As defending champions, a lot of eyes will be on Japan to see if they can follow in Germany's footsteps and win back to back titles. Watching them train, they come across as a slick, well-oiled machine, running relentless, productive and impressive attacking drills. Despite sitting fourth in FIFA's Women World Rankings, they'll be hard to beat if they can play to their best. But just how much improvement should we expect to see from the team from four years ago? "That's something that I want you to see in the games!," Sawa joked. "That's difficult for me to explain." The group stage should prove to be little concern for Japan. Drawn alongside Ecuador (ranked 48th in the world) and Cameroon (ranked 53rd), their toughest game will be their first one against Switzerland tonight. The Swiss are ranked 19th in the world and do pose a threat after a strong qualifying campaign that saw them go undefeated, recording nine wins and one draw, banging in 53 goals in the process and conceding just one. Japan may be the favourites, but they're not taking anything for granted against the Swiss. "Switzerland are newcomers to the World Cup, but they're one of the strongest teams in Europe," Sawa said of the match. "Even though we have won the title four years ago, we are still challengers. We'll respect Switzerland and we want to show our style of football." We'll see just what that is, and what threat the Swiss pose, at 7pm this evening at BC Place.
  4. This isn't the first football World Cup to be played on artificial turf. Finland hold that "honour" in 2003 when ten of the matches in the U17 Men's World Cup were played on such pitches, including the final. Two years later, Peru hosted the whole tournament on them and Canada played several games at the Men's U20 World Cup in 2007 on the surface. In the Women's game, the 2012 and 2014 U17 World Cups were played on the surface in Azerbaijan and Costa Rica, as was last year's U20 World Cup here in Canada. Elsewhere, a number of World Cup and EURO qualifiers have been played on non grass pitches. It doesn't make it right, that's an argument for another time for this grass lover, but it does show the growing acceptance of the pitches around the world. What that means is that a number of women in this year's World Cup have played on an artificial pitch, whether at international or club level. The flip side of that though is that the vast majority likely haven't and as such, their unfamiliarity with such surfaces could very well impact their performances and their team's results. As of Thursday, all bar six teams had already arrived in Canada to acclimatise to both surroundings, time zones and football turf. How used can you get to such a surface in a short period of time if you've never set foot on one before? Or seldom have? It will certainly give some teams and some players a competitive advantage. But what can you do? Well you could moan a lot like Abby Wambach or you could say ok, this is the hand we've been dealt, let's get on with it. And that's just what Australia have done, going as far as to say, well if you can't beat them, join them in the whole turf debate, and having a special artificial surface constructed for them to play and practice on ahead of the World Cup. "We were lucky enough to have one built for us back in Australia," Matilda's midfielder Katrina Gorry told AFTN. "We've been training on it pretty much since January. So we've had a bit of experience in the last six months. Obviously America and Canada pretty much play all their games on turf so they're probably more experienced on it. "But in the last six months, we've had a lot of experience on it. We've come to terms that we're going to be playing on it so that's not really in our minds any more, we're just here to play. The turf is just a part of it." That certainly seems to be the right attitude to have. The reigning World Cup Champions, Japan, have BC Place as their home for two of their group games, and maybe more as the tournament goes on. They seem pretty unfazed by the whole turf issue. Former Women's Player of the Year and 2011 World Cup winner, Homare Sawa, is non-plussed by the fuss surrounding the artificial surfaces and the woman regarded as the best Japanese player of all time is in fact very used to playing on such pitches from her many years playing in the US and with her current club, INAC Kobe Leonessa. "I train on artificial grass when I train with my club in Kobe every day," Sawa told reporters through a translator at training on Tuesday. "So it's just natural to me." Japan coach Norio Sasaki takes that attitude a step further and feels that the turf will actually be a benefit to his team because of the way that they play their football. "Japan has had a training camp in Japan for two weeks before coming to Canada," Sasaki told reporters through a translator. "We trained on grass rather than artificial turf. For Japan, we don't think that we need to change the style of football. It's kind of like an advantage for Japan because we move the ball a lot compared to other countries." We'll get a good idea just how much of an advantage or a leveller Canada's turf pitches will be for certain teams pretty soon. We'll also get an idea of just how the pitches are accepted across the world with a view to future tournaments being held on artificial surfaces. Will we ever see a senior men's World Cup played completely on football turf? You still feel it's unlikely, but if one ever is, Canada will be remembered for leading the way.
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