For Canadians who watched Monday’s controversial loss by our national women’s soccer team, it is impossible not to contemplate what could – perhaps should – have been. An Olympic semi-final victory over the heavily favoured United States, and a spot in the final with a guarantee of nothing less than a silver medal, would have ranked as this country’s greatest moment in the world’s most popular sport. No wonder there is so much anger toward the referee who stood in the way with several dubious calls, including the invocation of a rarely enforced rule about how long the goalkeeper may hold onto the ball, which allowed the Americans to tie the score in the second half before winning the match in extra time.
Among the disservices performed by the referee is that she overshadowed the heroics of the Canadian players – in particular captain Christine Sinclair, who demonstrated astounding force of will in scoring all three of her team’s goals. But if there is any justice, that will only be a temporary phenomenon.
In sports, it is not just the victories that are capable of bringing us together; on rare occasions, the defeats can unite us just as much. To watch our athletes play to the very best of their ability – and deserve a better fate than the one they receive – is to share with them emotions no less powerful than if we were watching them triumph.
When it comes to soccer, this is not an experience with which many Canadians are familiar. Despite high levels of participation, our national teams have rarely competed strongly enough for the losses to be heartbreaking. That there is so much heartbreak this time is a sign that something has changed.
The question now, as often in sports, is how we respond to adversity. It would be all too easy for this week’s events to become a crutch, to lean on when the team falls short in future. If decades from now Canadians are still looking back longingly on the time our women’s team could have, should have played for gold, it will be because this moment proved too fleeting.
“I wouldn’t want to be the team that plays us next,” Ms. Sinclair said on Monday. She was looking ahead to Thursday’s bronze-medal game, but that spirit should extend beyond it. In the combination of anger, disappointment and pride that our players and their supporters are now feeling, there lies a rallying cry.