Canada triumph, Mexico celebrate
© Getty Images

Historically, CONCACAF qualifying tournaments for the FIFA Women’s World Cup™ have followed a thoroughly predictable pattern. Regional giants USA traditionally finish on top of the podium with Canada joining them in the finals as valiant runners-up. Mexico, for all their effort and determination, never managed to break the hegemony enjoyed by their northern neighbours.

All that changed this month in Cancun, Mexico, when years of hard work by Las Aztecas finally came to fruition. In a historic meeting with USA in the semi-finals of the regional qualifying tournament, El Tri ran out 2-1 winners to take one of the two automatic berths at the FIFA Women’s World Cup Germany 2011.

Worn out by the effort, the hosts narrowly went down to Canada in the final, while the chastened Stars and Stripes picked themselves up to rout Costa Rica in the match for third place. In so doing, Pia Sundhage’s side kept their hopes of reaching the finals alive, setting up a two-legged play-off with Italy later this month for the last remaining berth in Germany. looks back at a fascinating and historic qualifying event in Cancun.

A routine start
The final group phase played out largely as predicted. In one section were overwhelming favourites USA, who found themselves drawn with Costa Rica, Haiti and Guatemala. With their customary ruthlessness, Abby Wambach, Amy Rodriguez and Co. brushed past their opponents, topping the group with 18 goals scored and none conceded.

As they have done in recent editions, Costa Rica joined them in the last four despite struggling in their opening game - a 1-0 win over Guatemala. Las Ticas then found their groove with a comprehensive 3-0 defeat of Haiti, before going down 4-0 to the free-scoring USA.

The second group consisted of hosts Mexico, Canada, Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago. The two north American sides were strong favourites to top the section and did not disappoint. After struggling to see off the disciplined Soca Princesses, both eased past debutants Guyana to set up a showdown for first place – a prize that would allow the victors to avoid meeting the all-conquering USA in the semi-finals.

Despite the build-up and stakes involved, the game proved something of an anti-climax. Two mistakes by Mexico goalkeeper Cecilia Santiago handed the Canucks a two-nil lead before half-time and, with the hosts throwing players forward in a desperate bid to reduce the deficit, it fell to Jonelle Filigno to put the gloss on an emphatic and surprisingly one-sided 3-0 victory.  

Strength and resilience
The stage was then set to decide who would take the two automatic qualifying slots for Germany 2011. First to book their place were Canada who, after a cautious first half against Costa Rica, continued the form they had shown during the group phase by netting four times after the break in a 4-0 success.

However, star billing went to the clash of Mexico and USA in the other semi-final. Despite home advantage, very few predicted an upset on the part of El Tri, being as they were a lowly 22nd in the FIFA/Coca-Cola Women’s World Ranking – a classification topped by their opponents since early 2008. Moreover, meetings between the two in previous editions had been dominated by the Stars and Stripes, who had won all four of their games, scoring 26 goals and conceding none.

This time, though, the shoe would be on the other foot. Roared on by 8,000 lively fans at Cancun’s Estadio Beto Avila, the hosts took the game to their northern rivals from the start. Amazingly, with just two minutes on the clock, captain Maribel Dominguez latched onto a deft flick-on from Lydia Rangel and nudged it past goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart to open the scoring.

As expected, the visitors came back strongly, laying siege to the Mexican goal, and it came as no surprise when Carli Lloyd slotted home the equaliser from close range on 25 minutes after a goalmouth scramble. However, Leonardo Cuellar’s side redoubled their efforts and were back in front two minutes later after a fine downward header from Veronica Perez found the corner of the net.

From then on the reigning champions enjoyed long spells of possession but could carve out few real openings. For their part, Mexico defended stoutly and launched the occasional slick counter-attack and, come final whistle, it was they, not their esteemed opponents, who were deservedly on their way to Germany.

Beaten for the first time in over two-and-a-half years and 35 games, USA bounced back with an impressive 3-0 win over Costa Rica to secure third place. They must now negotiate a play-off with UEFA’s fifth-placed side, Italy, on 20 and 27 November if they are to join the world’s best sides in Germany.

In the final in Cancun, meanwhile, a solitary goal from Christine Sinclair was enough to see off an exhausted but gallant Mexico side and hand Canada only the second continental title in their history.    

Final standings
1. Canada
2. Mexico
3. USA
4. Costa Rica

Leading scorers
Abby Wambach (USA): eight goals
Maribel Dominguez (Mexico): six goals
Christine Sinclair (Canada): six goals