Critical acclaim is nothing new to women’s soccer. It’s just never amounted to much beyond kind words and the odd intention.
So do not get carried away just because a crowd of 80,203 showed up at Wembley Stadium on Thursday to watch the United States win its fourth gold medal in five Olympics, just because there is anecdotal evidence that the home of soccer was smitten by the women’s game.
They certainly were in Staffordshire, where Stoke City fan Simon Keeling wrote to The Sentinel: “Having watched the women’s football semi-final between Canada and the U.S., I was struck by how much more effort and skill they displayed and how they chose not to roll around feigning injury and trying to get their opponents booked. They also appeared to be a bit tougher than their male counterparts in the professional game.”
Keeling also suggested Stoke City manager Tony Pulis sign Christine Sinclair.
“The standard’s improved every time there’s a World Cup or an Olympic Games,” said Canadian coach John Herdman, who overhauled New Zealand’s women’s program before salvaging the Canadian program after the 2011 World Cup. “Tactics are more refined, and technically the players become more superior.”
That has Herdman fearful for the future of the women’s team in Canada. As he looked to the left at a bleary-eyed news conference on Friday, he saw 29-year-old Sinclair and 28-year-old Diana Matheson, the last-minute, goal-scoring hero of Thursday’s 1-0 win over France. To his right were 30-year-old Marie-Eve Nault and 30-year-old Rhian Wilkinson. Canada is the host nation for the 2015 World Cup.
“There is a whole raft of work that has to be done below this group,” Herdman said. “Our talent structure is not strong enough to be the world’s best. We’re very lucky we’ve got some unbelievably gifted players at this point, but we’re falling behind in the 12-17 age group, and the Japanese are showing they’re leading the way.
“Sixty per cent of our players will be over 30 in the 2015 World Cup, and research will tell you don’t win World Cups with that average age.”
Herdman, an educator as well as a soccer coach, sees disconnects throughout the Canadian system. It isn’t enough to put together winning under-17 or under-20 teams, he said, at the cost of producing modern players. Herdman wants a clearer “development vision,” worries that the current approach is too much like teaching kids to do multiplication before they can add or subtract, and says Quebec’s development plan can be the model.
He worries about “the ceiling effect” in a country this size, where players only get to be as good as the best player around them.
And he is concerned Canada will be “technically, behind the 8-ball” unless it keeps up with “the accumulation of hours between the ages of 13-20 you see in the rest of the world.”
Matheson, from Oakville, Ont., talked about what it was like to stand on the podium at Wembley Stadium after the end of the U.S.-Japan gold-medal game. “The American anthem was playing,” she said, “but all we were watching was the Canadian flag.”
Sinclair, from Burnaby, B.C., spoke splendidly about “wanting young girls to dream of being in the Olympics, of getting a medal around their neck and representing their country. If we’ve given young girls the belief it can happen,” she added, “I think we’ve done our job.”
And Herdman? He issued a siren call for investors, supporters and “those who were disillusioned” with the team after the 2011 World Cup.
Women’s soccer has always seemed at a crossroads of something – remember how Germany’s women’s World Cup was supposed to change everything? – but in Canada, it really is at a tipping point.
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