Watch enough major soccer tournaments, and you recognize the feeling. It starts settling after the energy of the host’s first game; after the newness of the tournament’s narratives begins to wear off. Come the fourth, fifth days of a competition, there’s a groove – a routine that carries you while the group stage’s patterns hold.
Two, three games a day. Early wake-ups. Sneaking peeks from work. Maybe the games are being recorded, so you’re staying off social media. Or maybe you’re on social, and the jokes are getting old. By the time everybody has seen their team’s debut, the tension that fueled hopes, fears, predictions and nightmares gives way to something else. It gives way to a rhythm.
On Monday, we felt that rhythm. It played out in the tension of Japan and Argentina’s 0-0 draw just as it played out in Canada’s 1-0 victory in the next game, over Cameroon. The long spells with no goals, where two teams held each other to near-stand stills. These aren’t the league games we're used to, where the lack of stakes lead to chances taken, and errors committed. They’re not the international friendlies that, in their lack of significance, fill time on our calendars while offering few rewards.
Instead, France 2019 offers games four years in the waiting, being waged by players who’ve spent their lives considering the stakes. When mistakes happen, they’re rare, and remarkable, making it even more important that players avoid them. For each Nichelle Prince testing her lungs to try and outpace her Cameroonian defender, there’s an Estelle Johnson pushing the length of each stride to make sure she’s meeting the Canadian’s level.
At times, the results can be spectacular. Barbara Bonansea showed us as much on Sunday, lifting Italy to an upset of Australia. In the early parts of the group stage, though, it can become grind, where teams with no incentive to take chances not wanting to imbalance risk and reward.
Christine Sinclair almost changed that on Monday. Prior to halftime, her teammate, Kadeisha Buchanan, forced the rhythm to miss a beat, heading a corner kick down and into goal as Cameroon goalkeeper Annette Ngo Ndom tried to play the cross. Before that, though, Sinclair came tantalizingly close to international goal number 182, and a second half header that went wide, she nearly lessened the gap on soccer’s most-famous mark.
We’re focused on goal 182. And 183. As well as 184 and 185. It’s soccer history, after all, and before we know it, the record will have arrived. Sinclair’s made her feelings on the subject clear, though, which means the victory her team left the field with today will, for her, be enough. As much as she respects the game’s history, her goals lie in other places this month. After Monday’s game, Canada’s one step closer to meeting those marks.
If Monday told us anything about the path to those goals, though, it’s that it will be an extended one. World Cups always fly by in hindsight, but when we’re in them, we feel all the early wake-ups. We feel the games piling on top of each other. We feel the anticipation wane, and the tournament settling into its groove. We see the end of the group stage on the horizon, and we pine for the knockout round. By then, the newness of the Cup feels so far off.
We’re not there, yet. The United States plays tomorrow. After that, the first round of group play will be over. Still just over a month to go, but in this start to the first full week of the tournament, we can feel France 2019’s rhythm take hold.