A bronze medal at the Olympics has earned Erin McLeod some unexpected perks.
“I get recognized. Sometimes I get free coffees at Starbucks,” the Canadian goalkeeper said with a laugh. “I can’t complain about that.”
McLeod and her women’s soccer teammates signed autographs and took pictures with hundreds of adoring fans ahead of Canada’s men’s World Cup qualifier against Panama at BMO Field on Friday night.
Girls and boys, some of whom lined up hours before the gates opened, shouted the players’ names as they patiently waited for a chance to meet their heroes.
“I came back a week late from London so I didn’t see [the welcome] at the airport,” defender Rhian Wilkinson said between autographs. “But I think I’m getting a good idea of what it must have been like for everyone.”
The performance of the women’s team, which lost a heartbreaking and controversial semifinal against the United States before bouncing back to win bronze against France on Diana Matheson’s dramatic goal in the 92nd minute, was a highlight at the London Games for Canada.
The support garnered back home was so great that inspirational captain Christine Sinclair was chosen as Canada’s flag-bearer at the closing ceremony.
“The reaction has been overwhelming,” said McLeod, who was also honoured along with 13 of her teammates on the field prior to Friday’s game. “People have been recognizing us all over the place and I think it’s really cool for women’s sport. I think tonight is really awesome.”
And with an eye towards hosting the 2015 Women’s World Cup, the Canadian players aren’t taking their newfound celebrity lightly.
“I remember growing up with no female role models,” McLeod said. “Now we have an opportunity to totally change that so it’s a really exciting time for us and with the 2015 World Cup, we’ve got to keep it going.”
One of the first in line waiting for signatures and pictures was Daniela Ledesma, who plays on an under-eight team coached by her father.
Albert Ledesma says the success in London can’t be underestimated.
“I think it was incredible what they were able to accomplish and what it meant for the country,” he said. “You see all the girls having new heroes and saying ‘I want to be Christine Sinclair, I want to be [Melissa] Tancredi, I want to be Diana Matheson.’
“I think the country will see the benefits of that (on the field) in five or 10 years.”
While the Canadian women have broken through on the international stage, the men are looking to qualify for the World Cup in two years time, something a team from this country hasn’t done since 1986.
“I think we’ve be waiting a long time [for success in the men’s game]. I think a World Cup berth would make the country just blow up,” Ledesma said. “We sense that we’re getting closer and closer. It would be a very special day.”