Well, that was intense. Bitter, bittersweet, a brutal humiliation, maybe, but that was an event of importance. An event to savour, as in thousands of engaged, furious girls and young women in a packed stadium aiming adoration at professional Canadian women athletes and abuse at their opponents. It was raw.
BMO Field, again a stadium of tears and frustration for Canadian soccer fans of Toronto FC or the Canadian men’s national team, witnessed Canada lose 3-0 to the United States. Tough loss, but totally a crucible of fabulous emotion and a pointer to the future. Soccer isn’t our game; hockey is. But what the world cares about is soccer. And in soccer, it’s the Canadian women that matter. It’s ultra-kind to say that the Canadian men’s national team is in transition, on a long road to possible World Cup qualification some time in the distant future. It would be accurate to say they’re hopeless.
But the women’s team – they’re formidable, feared and successful. Maybe not on Sunday, but so what – they’re adored.
The narrative of women’s soccer is not yet written. It’s still evolving, and that’s makes it fascinating, frustrating and compelling. Some soccer supporters, male and female, sense where it’s going. The media doesn’t. Advertisers and other commercial partners don’t.
Here’s a possibility – women’s soccer offers the opportunity of a revolution in women’s team sports. Everything that bedevils women’s pro sports – the lack of media and audience attention, the perception of the athletes as eye-candy, the absence of career prospects, the dearth of role models – might be lessened if women’s soccer’s flourishes as it seems likely to do.
Most members of this Canadian team play in the fledgling National Women’s Soccer League, many have played for club teams in Europe. They are having careers as professional soccer players – a different experience from university players who turn up every few years for the World Cup or the Olympics. The two most powerful soccer bodies in the world, FIFA and UEFA, are heavily invested in growing the women’s game at every level. (The recent UEFA Women’s Champions League final, between VfL Wolfsburg of Germany and Olympique Lyonnais of France, held in London, was watched by 20,000 fans in the stadium.) There is every chance that women’s game can grow organically, away from the shadow of the men’s game, away from being a niche game, a glorious sport unto itself, universal and unfettered my old perceptions.
And that’s what needs to happen – a growth that’s a retort to those who follow the men’s game, and find the women’s game a diminished version. How interesting to see so many male diehard Toronto FC fans in the stadium on Sunday, shouting themselves hoarse in support. They know it, they intuit it – the recent history of the Canadian women’s team is already a winding, bizarre story, and intertwined with the evolving narrative of the women’s game.
Canada qualified for the Women’s World Cup in Germany in 2011 and entered the tournament heavily hyped here in Canada as potential world champions. The over-expectation happened largely because nobody was paying much attention to the team or to women’s soccer in Europe and Asia. The Canadian team was revealed to be tactically naïve and unsophisticated, losing all three of its games. Japan was the shock winner of the tournament, beating the U.S. in the final. France, a semi-finalist, emerged as a world power.
The key Canadian story was Christine Sinclair’s broken nose in the opening game. Sinclair put on a protective mask – it looked like a gladiator’s mask – and played on in the next games. The mass sports media latched on to this as seriously consequential – typically highlighting those women players who exhibit the most male characteristics of macho grit. Sinclair was hailed as a warrior. The angle was hokey and an injustice to a renowned soccer player of sublime skill and uncanny instinct.
The “warrior” thing was borrowed lazily from hockey. Warriors aren’t a big part of soccer. The great male players – David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi – aren’t brutes or battering rams. (Mind you, a case could be made that U.S. striker Abby Wambach, with her height and sinew, is a sort of battering-ram for her team.) It’s athleticism, skill, grace and canniness that matter.
Canada’s epic encounter with the U.S. at the Olympics last year, changed the narrative again. Under new manager John Herdman, Canada was a team reborn, swift and smart in the ball. Never mind the bizarre refereeing decision and the bitterness. That game countered every argument against the women’s game – it’s slow, boring, less intense, and explosive. It was fabulously dramatic, skilled soccer and anyone who watched, male or female, in Canada’s soccer-following commonality, knew it.
The FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada is two years away. The Olympics arrive a year after that. For the next three years, the soccer that matters in Canada is the women’s game. It stays on the radar. That matters. And the bandwagon grows bigger as the narrative is written. The other day, the Canadian Soccer Association announced a new corporate partnership with Garnier-Ombrelle, the cosmetics company. Sunscreen and hair-plumper products wanting to be in the game. If the sponsors think this game is now about flying ponytails, they might be wrong. It is and isn’t. Mainly it’s about the intensity seen at BMO Field on Sunday – the toughness, skill of the players and raw emotion of the supporters.
That was a great event. Bring on the future. Bring on the revolution.
John Doyle is The Globe and Mail’s TV critic and author of The World Is a Ball: The Joy, Madness and Meaning of Soccer