It’s the bronze medal that’s going to shine like gold for a team that stole a country’s hearts and then absconded with a medal, just for good measure.
Diana Matheson’s goal with less than a minute remaining in added time delivered a shock 1-0 win for the Canadian Olympic women’s team over France at City of Coventry Stadium on Thursday - although the players had to travel to London to receive their medals at the conclusion of the gold-medal game later in the day. The win also gives Canada its first medal in a traditional team sport at the Summer Olympics since the 1936 Canadian men’s basketball team won silver in Berlin.
Canada had been badly outplayed by a team that beat them 4-0 in the 2011 World Cup, out-shot 25-3 until Matheson, a 28-year-old, five-foot midfielder from Oakville, Ont., raced into the box to coolly dispatch a loose ball past French goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi. The play materialized out of a late flurry, and involved Sophie Schmidt and captain Christine Sinclair. It was Schmidt’s cross that spun off a defender and landed at the feet of Matheson.
Canada finished without a win in the 2011 World Cup, a performance that cost the highly paid, highly touted Carolina Morace her job and in the minds of many people hinted at the end of a run for a team whose core group had captivated and ultimately lost the heart of the nation.
That loss left Sinclair, in her own words, “a broken soccer player.”
It also opened the door for a Geordie, a native of Newcastle, named John Herdman, who had climbed up the ranks of the New Zealand soccer association and had coached that nation's women’s team. He brought along a supporting cast that included former New Zealand international Ceri Evans, a specialist in bio-feedback.
Guess what? They’ve put her back together again and she’s better than ever before. Sinclair was involved in the development of the goal but for the most part her efforts were restricted to helping batten down the hatches. That’s okay: she’d already scored six goals in the tournament.
“It’s great to see Christine smiling,” head coach John Herdman said after the game. “We have a picture in my office at home of Christine after the last World Cup with her head in her hands and the anger on her face and I said to the girls: ‘This has been my motivation. I’ll never see a player of that quality in that state after a tournament.
“Christine’s had the quote that’s kind of inspired us: you can’t be great until you achieve great things, and getting a medal today was that great thing.”
It was remarkable that Canada even had a chance to escape with a win. Two emotion-filled days after a 4-3 loss to its arch-rival the U.S., during which time it wondered if it would lose the talismanic Sinclair due to her pointed post-match criticism of the work of Norwegian referee Christina Pedersen, it found itself matched up against a highly skilled, technically proficient and strategically astute opponent.
France had the vast majority of possession and had several quality chances. But when it wasn't firing them off the goal-post or the crossbar or flicking headers inches wide, Canadian goalkeeper Erin McLeod was equal to the task. In the 49th minute, she was forced to lunge to her left after leaning right to flick away a deflection off a shot from Louisa Necib. Eugeine Le Sommer had an open header in the 88th minute that was directed wide of the net. In the 70th minute, diminutive midfielder Desiree Scott, playing despite a badly bruised knee suffered against the U.S., cleared the ball off the line to saved a goal.
“We thought that the emotions of the bronze medal game would take us through it, but I think most of us realized maybe half-way through the first half that we were absolutely gassed,” said Sinclair. “A lot of credit has to go to our staff, to all the hard work we did in Vancouver, because without that I don’t think Dee [Matheson] would have been inside the 18-yard box with a chance at the end. We put all that hard work in to try to defend with our lives and suffer through those last 45 minutes and try to create that one chance.”
The French players were as gutted as Canada had been when the U.S. scored the deciding goal on Monday at Old Trafford with less than 30 seconds left in extra time. But they left the field quickly, except for defender Wendie Renard who sat with her back against one of the goal-posts, before heading over to clap her hands in front of Canadian fans and then find friends in the crowd. There was some suggestion the goal might have been offside, but replays show that though a player was in an offside position she was not involved in the play. None of the French players protested, and neither did head coach Bruno Bini.
“France were good,” Herdman said, his understatement sending ripples of laughter through a news conference. “I think everybody watching back home had put the force-field around the goal.”
Matheson started celebrating before the ball rolled into the net. As the Canadian players mobbed each other in two groups, referee Jenny Palmqvist of Sweden raced over and yelled: ‘Ten seconds, you have 10 seconds left in the game.’”
The Canadian women did not get to play in the gold-medal match at Wembley Stadium Thursday night - won 2-1 by the U.S. against Japan - but they did show up to receive their bronze medals at the game's conclusion.
“There’s been a group of us who have been on this team for some time who have experienced the highs and lows of international soccer and nothing compares to this,” said Sinclair, who if the COC is so motivated would be a popular choice for flag-bearer at the closing ceremonies. “I don’t think any of us at the end of last year’s World Cup would have thought this is possible. This is for my teammates that went through the bad days with me 10 or 12 years ago. This medal’s for them.”
McLeod and Sinclair have been teammates for more than a decade, and her performance moved Sinclair close to tears in her post-match news conference. McLeod made costly mistakes in the first match against Japan and didn’t start the second game against South Africa, but Herdman went back to her for a do-or-die match with Sweden.
“We’ve had this in us the whole time,” McLeod said. “It’s just taken a little time to get there. That goal was a blur. I celebrated and I settled myself down, and I’m like: it’s 10 seconds until it’s over.’ They [the U.S.] just needed 30 seconds.”