As the penalty shootout between Canada and Sweden wound on, Christine Sinclair cycled through every human emotion. Like an incredibly fit mime.
She’d been subbed off in the 86th minute. She’d put in her shift and left the game tied 1-1. It was her move into the box that had earned a penalty in regulation and Canada’s only score.
Now that it was down to sudden death, she stood on the sidelines cradling another redoubtable, Desiree Scott. Those two were in the defining disappointment of London 2012.
When Jessie Fleming scored to start it, Sinclair pumped her fists. When the next three Canadian shooters missed, she variously slumped, put her hands on her knees, stared at the sky, tried not watching, tried not not watching, put her hands on her knees some more and went for a little walk.
Sweden could have sealed it off with its fifth kick and missed. Sinclair was a mess and then suddenly not a mess. That left it all down to Julia Grosso.
Grosso, 20, was born four months after Sinclair scored her first international goal. How’s that for time being a round circle?
Sinclair doesn’t move as she used to, but she was the first one out on the field. Once the celebrating was done, she lay there on the grass for a long time.
“It went to penalties and then everything can happen,” Sweden’s Fridolina Rolfo said afterward.
You want a technical answer? Ask a Canadian. But if you want philosophy, try a Swede.
These games cannot, and probably should not, end without some animus. Apparently, on Swedish television, some commentators were annoyed that Canadian goalkeeper Stephanie Labbé smiled too often during the shootout.
Labbé tried explaining herself. The Swedes on hand kept coming back at her, looking for her to wander blindly into a day-after story. Eventually, Labbé gave up trying.
“I won a gold medal so I don’t care,” she said mildly, and walked off.
If you’re planning a trip to Stockholm, go easy with the teasing.
There were a half-dozen heroes on Friday – Labbé and Grosso will just feature up top in more game stories.
But Sinclair was the fulcrum. Even her teammates seemed to realize this was her moment just a little bit more than theirs.
Not a lot of people get to relive history and do it right the second time around. Sinclair had finally won the gold medal that fate and a rattled referee robbed her of two Olympics ago. That got her, very briefly, talking about the past.
“When I started playing with the national team, we were losing to the U.S. 9-0. That was the norm,” Sinclair said afterward. “I thought Canada was capable of [this]. But, man, it happened fast.”
You could say that about the women’s game as a whole back when Sinclair started in 2000. Most of those teams, Canada included, had two primary tactics – kick the ball as far as you can and then knock down anyone in between you and it. Soccer is tougher than people give it credit for, but women’s soccer was seriously tough.
This was the German way, the Scandinavian way and the Canadian way. Few other countries had any sort of way because they didn’t care about women’s soccer.
On some level, it’s still like that – a few countries with progressive politics and money to burn taking on a lot of countries with neither.
Canada is one of the haves. Our program is well supported. We use state-of-the-art training methods and facilities. Our top players have day jobs at some of the biggest clubs in the world.
But standing underneath all of those new advantages, like Atlas, is Sinclair.
She created the modern Canadian women’s soccer set-up. Not logistically. As far as I know, she isn’t much good at lobbying and fundraising. But imaginatively.
She was Canada’s first truly world-class player. She played like an American (a compliment in this context). She took what Canada already had – a blunt, fighting spirit – and sharpened it into something formidable.
She’s 38 now, and still playing forward. There is no such thing as a 38-year-old forward. Pele retired from international play when he was 30. Maradona was 34. But, in fairness, Sinclair has more goals than either of them, so maybe they don’t completely measure up as comparison points.
What Sinclair does now is provide a brain-centre on the field. You can see her pulling the formation this way and that without needing to say anything. Her teammates see where she’s drifting and adapt around her.
Canada’s been good for a long while. But in Tokyo, for the first time, it looked complete. As though the team wasn’t out there making it up as it went along, however much fun that sometimes is to watch.
The result of that cohesion was a famous victory – the most important game of Canadian soccer yet played – that Sinclair didn’t win, but orchestrated. She was pulling the strings even when she wasn’t on the field.
Nine years ago in London, she had a performance for the ages. Three goals on three attempts, each one of them to take the lead. There are strikers they’ve built statues of who would give a couple of fingers to have had a game like that on a stage as big as the Olympics.
In a perfect world, her pinnacle would have come then, at the height of her athletic powers.
Instead, it’s in Tokyo. She scored one goal here in six games. She missed a penalty. She was first in our hearts and fourth or fifth on the depth chart.
But Sinclair has passed beyond statistics.
“She’s just this pure human,” Sophie Schmidt, one of returnees from that great thwarted team of 2012, said of Sinclair. “And the best part? She’s Canadian.”
When Sinclair finally appeared postgame – the last one out, of course – she was wearing her gold and carrying a ball.
Is that the ball, someone wondered.
“I don’t know,” Sinclair said, in a tone that said she’d even impressed herself. “FIFA gave me this. But I definitely took a ball from the field. So now I have two.”
The Globe and Mail