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Steve Russell/Toronto Star

Steve Russell/Toronto Star

Ancaster's Melissa Tancredi

Team Canada muscles way into women’s final four
Cathal Kelly/Toronto Star Columnist
COVENTRY, ENGLAND—By the standards of this gritty, mid-sized burg, Friday evening was a bit of an occasion.

The crowd at the Canada-Great Britain women’s football quarter-final was overwhelmingly made up of locals, all of whom seemed determined to enjoy some clean, family fun. Emphasis on “clean.’’

They loudly cheered O Canada. The tone of that ovation was something along the lines of, “Aw, Canada. You’re all grown up. And so handsome. We remember when we used to own you.”

Once they got a look at Canada, their G-rated enthusiasm began to wane. It started around the sixth minute, when Ancaster’s Melissa Tancredi horse-collared her marker and dropped her to the ground like a sack of mulch.

All of a sudden, this wasn’t fun for the crowd. This was sport.

The English know how to do sport even better than fun. Tancredi and her teammates were intermittently, but lustily booed for the remainder of the game.

“This is the type of game we’re playing,” Tancredi shrugged. “The men don’t bring that type of physicality. They’re more about diving and gamesmanship. For us, we don’t get the calls. We get the physicality.”

If Tancredi annoyed them, Desiree Scott drove them to fits. Again and again, the elfin defensive midfielder was sweeping the legs out from under another Brit. By the end, it looked as if she was human bowling.

“I didn’t mind being the villain,” Scott said, grinning. And here she shrugged off her gigantic backpack, flexed and roared, “The Destroyyeeeeer!”

That’s what they call Scott: The Destroyer.

Who gave her that nickname? “I’m not sure she didn’t name herself,” Rhian Wilkinson smiled slyly.

If so, you should ask Desiree Scott to nickname you. She’s good at that sort of thing.

No, Canada’s women were not very good guests on Friday night. They put their elbows on the table and chewed with their mouths open. They mortified little Britain up here in the Midlands, and on the way they won.

Riding early goals from Jonelle Filigno — a wonderful, windmilling side-footer on a designed play from a corner — and Christine Sinclair — one of her trademark top-of-the-box free kicks — they advance to Monday’s semifinals.

They are now one win in two from being the first Canadians to earn a team medal in a traditional sport at a Summer Olympics since 1936. Traditional being the nice way of saying “non-ridiculous.’’

In that semi, they’ll meet the U.S.A. — the mean girl from high school they’re still dreaming about getting even with. This has so often gone wrong for Canada at this point, but this group seems changed. It’s the feeling you get when your wife cuts her hair, and is waiting for you to notice. Different, but not in any way you can put your finger on.

It has little to do with personnel or alignment.

This is essentially the same squad that went to the Women’s World Cup last summer and finished 16th of 16 teams.

Everyone else in the game has remained in stasis. The other three semifinalists at this Olympics — the U.S., Japan and France — were also semifinalists in that tournament. Only Canada is changing.

There have been little tweaks to the side — Scott prime among them, a fringe player made a midfield focus by new coach, John Herdman.

According to Herdman, Scott caught his eye by “releasing” herself from her “performance cage.”

(One eyebrow going up)

With Herdman, there’s a lot of motivational stuff that has a quirky, Tom Cruise vibe.

“We’ve developed what we call a ‘grow culture’. There’s a culture of continuous improvement,” Herdman said. “They spend hours in the tactical footage room, or grow room . . . We’ve really put destiny in their hands. I think in previous regimes . . . the coach has been at the centre of the fountain of knowledge. We’ve placed them at the fountain of knowledge.”

(Totally blank look)

If John Herdman comes to your house, make sure he’s not selling magazines before you let him in.

It sounds flaky, but evidently it works.

Unlike that previous regime he’s alluding to — Italian Carolina Morace and her half-baked personality cult — Herdman has his charges playing with abandon, rather than a sort of stunned rigidity.

This team looks like it’s having fun. Why not? They’re going to Old Trafford, home of Manchester United, to play the world No. 1 for an Olympic medal.

“A ridiculous dream,” Tancredi called it.

Just as long as they don’t wake up yet.

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