It's on. And it's hot.
England against Canada, Saturday in Vancouver at the Women's World Cup, England aiming to upend Canada at home in the quarter-finals just as Canada dumped Great Britain at home at the 2012 London Olympics.
In the tradition of a hyped prize fight with ample bursts of incendiary trash talk, England's coach, Mark Sampson, has tossed buckets of gasoline on the pre-game bonfire with an array of attacks and accusations.
While Canada dealt with its own controversies this week, Sampson was declaring that referees at the World Cup have been incredibly kind to Canada. Sampson believes refs have called only a fraction of the fouls that should have been whistled on "the most aggressive team in this tournament." And he had a lot more to say, too.
This is exactly what this tournament needs. Intensity. Passion. Controversy. Since the June 6 kickoff in Edmonton, the tenor has been pretty placid. The games have been slow. Occasional upsets haven't resonated.
But now, with eight teams left and the trophy in sight, the real tournament has begun and attention begins to focus.
Sampson knows it. His questioning of officials wasn't wild-eyed chatter – he deliberately set that fire. Even though his team has beaten Canada the last three times the two sides have played competitive matches (Canada didn't score a single goal in those games), Sampson's aim this week was to turn Canada's elbows-up style against the home team. He wants everyone looking at Canada's edgy play, especially when it is defending its penalty area.
Five Canadians have yellow cards acquired during the tournament, all of them held by key players: Christine Sinclair, Kadeisha Buchanan, Josée Bélanger, Desiree Scott and Allysha Chapman. If any of them gets handed a second yellow card, they will be suspended for one game – and no one wants to miss a potential World Cup semifinal.
So if Sampson succeeds in putting the Canadians under more scrutiny, he may also force them to soften their physical play. And a subdued Canada becomes an essential advantage for England. Sampson of course knows that Canada, against the U.S. back in 2012, was on the wrong side of a referee's bad call, a pain that still lingers.
Sampson's spiel was published Friday in The Guardian. Among other spicy views, Sampson said Canada has yet to score a worthy goal in the tournament – "that hasn't come from an opponent's error or a refereeing error." The latter was a reference to Canada's 1-0 opening win against China, on a Sinclair penalty kick after a late call against China that Sampson called "very dubious."
Sampson, a 32-year-old Welshman, also took on Canada coach John Herdman, a 39-year-old Englishman from near Newcastle, for his "tight shirts and his Ray-Bans." Sampson fired at Herdman's penchant for the spotlight: "We've got to remember it's the players who are the stars of the show, not the managers."
It was a remarkable verbal assault from the England coach, one from which Sampson, in an interview with The Globe and Mail Friday morning, did not back down. He redoubled the effort.
"We're stating what we feel is evidence, we're bringing what we feel are facts to people," said Sampson. "We've asked the question of what type of team we're facing, and I stand by that: We're facing an incredibly aggressive Canadian team. And I'm not saying there's anything wrong with that. Football's about tackling, being physically dominating. And Canada's used that as a huge weapon."
The coach's weapon is to raise concern about fouls, especially in the penalty area – a foul there equals almost a certain goal, a penalty kick. Sampson twice invoked the question of fouls in the box, and cited Kadeisha Buchanan. He didn't have to mention that the 19-year-old is a breakout star, a hard-tackling defender, a key to Canada's success.
"There is the possibility that, in both boxes, officials will have to make some big decisions," said Sampson.
The referee in charge on Saturday, Claudia Umpierrez of Uruguay, has not overseen any of Canada's or England's matches at this World Cup. Umpierrez, 32, has been an international official for five years, and this is the biggest stage on which she has ever worked – the biggest, loudest and most important game, with 50,000-plus people.
As a backdrop to England-Canada, the Sampson-Herdman contest has a little history. In 2013, the England coaching job came open and it was presumed that Herdman was heading home, the obvious candidate after Canada defeated Great Britain at the 2012 Olympics. He declined, however, preferring Canada and the team he was building here. Sampson took the job.
Herdman, earlier this week, stirred things up a little too. Asked about the emotional backdrop, having turned down a chance to coach England, the Lower Mainland-based coach was somewhat sharp: "You've just got to look out your window in B.C. and see the mountains and the lakes. Where would you rather be, eh? Where would you want your kids to grow up?"
Herdman grew up in a tough, small town in northeast England, where the steelworks had been shuttered. Crime and other ills plagued the citizenry. It was the type of place ambitious young people might want to leave behind.
"Reality is," said Herdman, pivoting, "all we're thinking about is beating a team. There's no emotion around who we're playing."
Doesn't sound that way. Sounds like it's going to be a fever pitch. Perfect for everyone watching.
Corralling emotion will be essential for both sides, but Canada especially. "They're in the back of people's minds," said Herdman of the team's yellow cards. "But we just got to do what it takes to win the match. We won't say to players, 'Don't put the tackle in.' They've got to do it."
Sampson, meanwhile, readies England for a Canada at full force. "There is no way that this Canadian team will be any softer than they've ever been, I can guarantee that," he said. "Canada will bring a huge amount of aggression to this game."