Christine Sinclair\’s controversial late penalty got hosts Canada off to a winning start at the Women\’s World Cup on Saturday with a 1-0 victory over China, as the Netherlands beat New Zealand by the same scoreline.
The Group A doubleheader in Edmonton kicked off four weeks of football across Canada and was preceded by an opening ceremony in front of a packed and passionate crowd of 53,038 at the Commonwealth Stadium.
And the party atmosphere amid a sea of red and white flags was complete when 31-year-old Sinclair stepped up two minutes into added time to slot in a penalty awarded for a foul on substitute Adriana Leon by Zhao Rong in the box.
It was Canada captain Sinclair\’s 154th goal in 224 internationals.
"Only one woman in the world could step up like that in the 90th minute and write that script," said Canada coach John Herdman.
"I\’m glad we could sneak a win. We have the three points and are on the road."
Midfielder Sophie Schmidt, voted player of the match, described Sinclair as an "inspiration."
"She\’s our captain, no doubt about it. And there was no doubt in my mind that she was going to put it away.
"She\’s one of the best strikers in the world, if not the best.
"It was just an amazing atmosphere out there today and to kick off the World Cup in front of 50,000-plus fans is just something else."
Canada, the Olympic bronze medallists, had been desperate for all three points to set themselves up as challengers at their home tournament.
For the young Chinese team, nicknamed The Steel Roses, it was a first defeat in their opening match of a World Cup.
The hosts started strongly. Central defender Kadeisha Buchanan had two early shots at the back post but both were blocked by goalie Wang Fei, with her Canadian opposite Erin McLeod then blocking a shot by Yasha Gu, with a Wang Lisi effort hitting the post.
But just as the match seemed certain to end in stalemate, Zhao fouled sub Leon and Sinclair slotted the penalty home to the delight of the crowd.
Herdman, however, claimed that China seemed to be playing for a draw, with goalkeeper Wang jeered several times by the crowd as she appeared to take her time over goal-kicks.
"The Chinese came for a draw and were killing time in the first 20 minutes of the game," said Herdman.
China\’s coach Hao Wei refused to be drawn on that or the harsh penalty.
"It\’s a real pity," said Hao.
"But we\’re here to play the game. We respect the referee\’s judgement. Whether it was a foul or not we\’ll have to watch the video replay.
"I think within two days we will be able to regroup mentally to be able to challenge in our next games. I have no doubt about that."
In Saturday\’s second game, Lieke Martens gave the Dutch newcomers their first World Cup goal that condemned New Zealand to a 10th defeat in as many games spanning three editions of the tournament.
Martens\’ superb 33-minute strike from outside the area was her 21st goal for the "Oranje Leeuwinnen" (Orange Lionesses).
It left Erin Nayler, 22, with no chance in the New Zealand goal.
"It\’s a dream come true," said the 22-year-old Martens.
"As a girl you dream of scoring a goal at the World Cup."
New Zealand coach Tony Readings put the result down to "one piece of brilliance from a player we knew would be a problem."
The Dutch, playing their first ever World Cup, next play China, with New Zealand facing Canada next Thursday.
Sunday\’s second day of competition moves to Ottawa, where in Group B top-ranked Germany open their campaign for a third crown against 67th-ranked Ivory Coast, as Asian minnows Thailand take on former winners Norway.