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Three years ago, Canada was robbed by a referee at the London Olympics.

On Saturday, on a smaller stage in a less meaningful game, the sorority of officials went part of the way to evening the deficit.

China was en route to a grim, goalless draw with the hosts. Just into extra time, Adriana Leon got tangled with a defender in the Chinese box. It didn't look like much. It looked like a 50-50 exchange, and especially so considering the late hour and the score. Ukrainian referee Kateryna Monzul saw it differently. She awarded the penalty kick. Christine Sinclair slotted. It was far from convincing, but it's a win. Canada's World Cup has left the station. Slowly. But it's out.

"It was a penalty," manager John Herdman said. "It wasn't blatantly obvious. I thought [the referee] was brave."

That's one word for it. Generous is another. Canadian forward Melissa Tancredi had it as "a lucky call," which seems closest to the truth.

One wonders if this was it – payback in full for Norwegian ref Christina Pedersen's two minutes of madness at the Olympic semi-final against the United States. If so, it isn't enough.

It will put a lingering worry in Canada's opponents going forward – that the hosts are getting host's calls. If this were a men's tournament, Canadian players would spend the next month hitting the deck like it's a fire drill. But women don't play that way, so all future game-saving calls will have to be earned honestly.

The lead-up to something this big is interminable, and almost guaranteed to disappoint. You don't cruise through your debut. You survive it.

"We were nervous, and we played like it," goalkeeper Erin McLeod said.

Canada's performance was in keeping with their form over the past year – workmanlike. They dominated the Chinese, which isn't saying much. China came to Edmonton looking as if they were hoping someone would turn off the scoreboard and agree to call it a draw.

"They were killing time in the first 20 minutes," Herdman said.

As such, most of the game was a barely watchable mess. Up until the end, the most exciting thing about the whole day had been the preamble.

As a general rule, the opening ceremonies at World Cups seem as if they were conceived by some demented art director on Day 7 of a vision quest.

This was a little more Canadian – a couple of cute kids, a couple of short musical numbers, nine minutes in total. It was the best possible thing you can say about live musical theatre – mercifully brief.

The home anthems came off. Everything looked five-by-five. And then the Chinese began to play (i.e. not play).

There was a perceptible gap in skill. Canada has some, while China looks as if it's kicking around a cinder block. On the home front, you worry that Canada will spend so much of the early going here playing down to people, they won't be able to look back up when it starts to count.

At one point, Sinclair was able to Diego Maradona her way through a static row of Chinese players. It looked like a cone drill. Sinclair's good, but no one's supposed to be that good.

Play would stall inside the Chinese penalty area for eternities. The threat of a counterattack was so unlikely, McLeod occasionally drifted up almost to the halfway line.

And, of course, it was the Chinese who had the first decent chance. An errant pass at the back forced Desiree Scott to chop down a Chinese forward in the 23rd minute. There were a lot of loose passes at the back – which is going to become a serious problem very soon. The resulting Chinese free kick came back off Canada's right post, then its left post, then out.

Honestly, we have no greater patriots than our posts – soccer and otherwise. Canadian posts should get medals, too.

We were thinking moonily about those posts for a whole five minutes, until Canada's Josée Bélanger hit a crossbar. And then we were thinking, "Burn them. Burn them all." The entire first half sent clusters of players chasing one another around the pitch like a giant game of Pong. The Canadians tried to patch something together. The Chinese concentrated on pulling it apart. It's sound underdog tactics, but it didn't make for compelling sport.

The sellout crowd was trying to be supportive, but it's hard to maintain an atmosphere when your team is out there punching sand.

What the Chinese do have is remarkable fitness. It was a 4 p.m. start, on a hot afternoon. Unlike a natural surface, the plastic field at Commonwealth Stadium absorbs sunlight. After a while, it can feel like standing on an oven top.

Midfielder Sophie Schmidt called the heat "special," in a way that rather suggests the opposite.

It's a truism that it takes more energy to defend than attack, but Canada looked the more worn out side at the end. That is, unless Chinese 'keeper Wang Fei was being asked to retrieve a ball. In her time-wasting efforts, Wang used every slow-down manoeuvre short of dropping on all fours and crawling.

Referees have a way of noticing those sorts of things and punishing you for them later. Nobody knows it better than Canada.

If this game was meant to allay concerns about the home team, it didn't do the trick.

Sinclair gets the credit, but the real goalscorer was Monzul, the referee.

Canada came in with a reputation as a well-organized side that can't score. They doubled down on it.

Everyone will respect this team, but no one is going to fear them. Maybe the home field offsets the lack of that advantage. Maybe the refs can, too. It's probably easier to depend on yourselves.

They're still on track to win their group. But Canada will need to find something much more than what they showed here on Saturday if they have larger ambitions.