It is days away now, the Women's World Cup. It's happening here, in Canada. Four weeks of soccer in six cities, 24 countries participating. Some say it's not really on our radar. But that's men talking.
As host country, Canada is under pressure to do well. It's not going to be easy. There is formidable opposition from numerous teams. The United States intends to win it. The tournament is in their backyard, they say, and their supporters will come in the thousands.
And then there's us, our team. If you want to know them, their story and their extraordinary journey, then watch this Tuesday night.
Rise (TSN, 7:30 p.m.) is an hour-long, intimate look at the Canadian team. It is not your conventional, quickie sports documentary. Directed by Bobbi Jo Hart, who made the extraordinary, award-winning arts doc I Am Not a Rock Star, Rise gets up-close and very personal with the Canadian team. Be forewarned, by the way – I turn up in it briefly to do some soccer punditry.
It starts at the bottom. That is where the Canadian team found itself after a disastrous performance at the last Women's World Cup, in 2011 in Germany. It was, it is emphasized, Canada's most humiliating moment ever.
"It was a broken team," says Christine Sinclair, who is always called "Sincy" by her teammates. Several players were ready to quit. It was nine months to the 2012 Olympics, and the job of putting the broken team together again fell to newly hired coach John Herdman.
Herdman emerges here as a vital figure and an unusual coach. More scientist/psychologist than roaring motivator, he brought a specific plan to the team's preparation and the necessity of moving forward. It's called "the Four Corners" and the four are, "physical, technical/tactical, mental and social/emotional." It's all about preparing the team in every possible realm of experience. It's not just about fitness or tactics. Far from it. The plan clearly intrigues the players, who succumb to it fully.
There is, however, one bizarre twist in the narrative of how the Canadian team progresses. That's the 2012 Olympics in London. Specifically the epic game against the United States. The players speaking in Rise can practically recall it minute-by-minute. It is seared into their minds. Canada was winning, playing with a fierceness and fluidity that knocked the American players back on their heels. Sinclair was on fire, scoring again and again.
Then a series of bizarre refereeing decisions turned everything upside down. Norwegian referee Christina Pedersen, out of her depth, spooked by the intensity and harangued by American players who felt the game ebbing away, penalized Canadian goalkeeper Erin McLeod for holding the ball too long. A decision of such rarity that few soccer fans watching could recall it ever being made. I couldn't.
In the doc, McLeod talks about it all. It's very hard for her. She tears up, her voice cracking. It's a memorable moment, this exposure of raw emotion. It's like that epic game happened yesterday.
In the end, Canada took a bronze medal from the Olympics, beating France. "That's when our lives changed forever," one of the players says. The outpouring of support and, from many women in Canada, utter devotion, was overwhelming. The team was still bruised, not broken any more, but passionately motivated.
The scenes of the team in the gym, pushing and pushing to be faster, stronger, are fun but revealing. This is very much a group effort. And one of the key issues about this team is dealt with directly – the core of the team is a group of players over the age of 30. As Herdman says, you don't win a World Cup with older players. The delicate art of blending younger players into an existing, long-standing group is one of Herdman's hardest tasks.
Rise moves from the 2012 Olympics toward now, documenting two more matches against the U.S. and providing some illustration of the intense support that this team has from young Canadian girls. We see the fans screaming, awed by the presence of Sinclair or Diana Matheson. It's both touching and inspiring.
The documentary has a simple theme. The title is taken from the national anthem – "we see thee rise" – and the anthem enters the soundtrack many times, but subtly. Rise also moves delicately into the personal lives of several players, their families, girlfriends and boyfriends.
None of them is getting rich from this work, this journey. "If I was in this for the money, I'd have quit a long time ago," Sinclair says, laughing. That's one reason to root for this team, but there are many more. And Bobbi Jo Hart has done a deeply impressive job of introducing us to these smart, funny and mightily talented women. They will rise to the occasion of this World Cup. If not by winning it, then certainly by winning a country's love and admiration. Let's see what happens. It's only days away.