On Aug. 6, 2012, in the hours before the greatest game of women’s soccer ever played, Manchester lay silent.
Down in London at the Olympics proper, it was all tumult – hot, close and loud. Four hours north of the capital, the air was fresher and the atmosphere thinner. By game time, it would be cool enough for tuques. There were only a few people milling around the venue, Old Trafford, home of Manchester United and one of the cathedrals of sport.
Canada’s national women’s team was to play the United States there in the Olympic semi-final that evening.
It was a big game, but there was no good reason for it to feel charged. The Canadians had not beaten their greatest rivals in 11 years of competition. They had looked intermittently overmatched at London 2012, but had been fortunate in their draw. At least, to that point.
Nonetheless, the lead-up to that contest felt special. Everyone who was there – including me – remembers it that way. You just knew. Those are the words the Canadian players use to describe it. This is the story of that game, seen through their eyes.
It would not be a great victory. In the end, it was something more complicated and lasting. It was to be perhaps the most mythic, vexing and binding sporting loss in our country’s history.
GK Erin McLeod: I had this routine. Every morning I’d look in the mirror and centre myself and say, “I totally believe in you. I know you can do this.” I remember looking in the mirror that morning and it was just in my gut. I just knew this was the time.
F Jonelle Foligno: We felt we were going to win that game. Now, we’d said that to each other in the past. Like, “We’re going to win this game.” We’d say it, but I’m not sure we believed it. But that day, we didn’t even have to say it. We just knew.
D Rhian Wilkinson: I’ve always kept a diary. It was something my grandfather encouraged me to do. But before the Olympics, I stopped and I don’t know why. I don’t know if it was a conscious thing, but I think I just wanted to be in the moment. I was so confident and comfortable during that tournament. I wasn’t nervous. I just was.
D Carmelina Moscato: There’s a point where the underdog decides to bully the bully. We wanted to be that team. It wasn’t about tactics. It was about being good Canadians. Asking ourselves, “How would a Canadian play?
Playing in that stadium didn’t hurt. [Famously unhinged former Manchester United forward] Eric Cantona, he’s my hero. He walked through those tunnels. I couldn’t believe it. I felt like I was channelling a little bit of psycho Cantona.
F Christine Sinclair: Usually, the day before a game, we go to the stadium and practise. I’m a Liverpool fan, but my second team is Man U. I was so looking forward to going to Old Trafford. [Coach] John [Herdman] cancelled practice. He said, “You guys go rest. You need that more.”
So I really remember that drive to the stadium. It was the first game of the tournament where I wasn’t thinking about the game. I was thinking, “Oh my God, we’re in Old Trafford.” I gave myself five minutes to just be a tourist. I grabbed my camera and walked out on the field and started snapping pictures.
The U.S. team got Manchester United’s palatial clubhouse. Canada got changed in the visitors’ room.
Sinclair: It’s shockingly small and, like, one toilet. Ugly.
Coach John Herdman broke protocol by allowing team members to devise the tactical game plan – an aggressive approach designed to absorb pressure, and then counterattack in force.
M Sophie Schmidt: All of us contributed. We broke off in groups, then came back as a team. Two people presented it to John. It truly felt like we had control of the game then. We could make changes within the game as the U.S. adapted to our strategy. But we knew what they had and we were prepared for it. We felt like we were ready for anything that day.
It was a holiday Monday in much of Canada, and the game began in the early afternoon. We were well into what had been a downbeat Olympics for Canada, results-wise. The country was running out of rooting options. The women’s soccer team fell fortuitously into that gap. A win in this match would guarantee Canada its first team medal in a mainstream sport in 80 years.
They had arrived without any hype, but they had survived. That counted for something. It also never hurts when you have a chance to sting our friends to the south. For many viewers at home, the anthems may have been their first chance to take stock of this group. The players knew that, too.
D Lauren Sesselmann: You’re shaking in your boots. You’re not really paying attention, but you’re feeling the words. You’re looking around, all the cameras are going, everyone’s focusing on you, looking at the flag. You’re thinking, “This is going to be one of the greatest moments of my life.” And it truly was.
It started slowly. We may remember it as end-to-end, but it was a grind to begin with. Canada absorbed steady American pressure for the first 20 minutes. Then, in the 22nd minute, from nothing, a remarkable Canadian counter spearheaded by Christine Sinclair led to the first goal. The Americans on the field looked momentarily baffled. Their plan wasn’t working. Canadian defender Emily Zurrer was injured, sitting in the Old Trafford stands.
D Emily Zurrer: That was the most emotional I’ve ever felt in any game. I’ve never cried at a game before. That night I cried three times. I cried when we scored our first goal. I cried when Sincy scored the third one. And … you know.
Sinclair: Everyone thinks we played so well in that game. We didn’t. We defended well, and for the first time ever against the Americans, we took our chances, buried them.
Sinclair has never watched the entire game, but Herdman has shown the team some game footage for instructional purposes.
Sinclair: John showed us a five-minute clip and it was just us defending, defending, corner, defend, slide tackle, you name it. And then we get one counterattack and score. That’s how I remember it – like it wasn’t pretty.
Sinclair has had some wonderful performances over nearly 15 years at the highest level. Arguably, she is the greatest female team athlete this country has ever produced. Given the stage, that night was the crowning performance of her career. Those two hours were the reason she was a universally hailed choice for the Lou Marsh Award as Canada’s 2012 athlete of the year.
Sinclair: It’s the most confident I’ve ever felt about myself and the team. We’d score. They’d score. Let’s do it again. Come on. We’d score. They’d score. Let’s do it again. Even when they scored to go 4-3 with five seconds to go in the game, I was, like, “Come on. Get the ball. We’re going down to score.”
The half ended with Canada leading 1-0. During the intermission, goalkeeper Erin McLeod was approached by one of the referee’s assistants inside the Canadian locker room.
McLeod: The linesman said, “You have to hurry up your kicks.” I thought she was talking about my goal kicks [taken after a stoppage in play]. If you watch the second half, I didn’t take more than six seconds on any of my goal kicks. You never think you’re going to get called on [holding the ball during play]. I was expecting a formal warning at least. I do remember thinking I was going to get a yellow [card] at some point. I wasn’t trying to see how far I could push the ref. Honestly, I didn’t think twice about it.
Coach John Herdman: I have three memories of that game. One was feeling I got it wrong at halftime. We were going to shift into a diamond [at midfield] because they’d started getting in between our lines. I was thinking [U.S. coach] Pia’s [Sundhage] going to be saying, “Get players between the units because we’re hurting them.” I hadn’t anticipated that. But it was by chance they were getting plays in there. It wasn’t a tactical shift. Just after halftime, the U.S. went back to their direct strategy and scored. I went, “I’ve got this wrong. Was that me?” And feeling that I’d let the girls down. I’ve never forgiven myself for that.
In the 54th minute, American Megan Rapinoe scored directly from a corner kick – an ugly goal that squirmed into the net amid a pile of bodies. The game was tied 1-1 and ready to explode. When you are recalling how it felt to watch that contest – the sense of disequilibrium and giddiness – it’s from this point on.
Sinclair would score a header in the 67th minute. Rapinoe replied in the 70th with a guided missile from distance. Then Sinclair scored an absolutely remarkable goal – her third of the game – pushing off two markers and heading back across the face of goal. Canada was up 3-2 with less than 20 minutes remaining. The pace was frantic. The crowd was frothing. Inside Old Trafford, you couldn’t tell who was cheering for whom any more. The crowd just wanted more, from everyone.
M Desiree Scott: We would score. They would score. And on and on. It was a wild, wild game to be in. After [Sinclair] scored the third one, I said, “There’s no way she’s scoring a hat trick and we’re not going home with this.” I kept thinking, holy crap, we’re going to a gold-medal game here. We’re going to do something unbelievable.
It’s funny. It’s years ago, and I feel like I’m there right now reliving it.
Depending on your rooting interest, the instigator/villain in this piece was American captain Abby Wambach. The veteran forward also came armed with a plan – to unsettle Norwegian referee Christina Pedersen by pointing out how long McLeod was holding the ball during play. By rule, the goalkeeper has six seconds to let go of the ball after picking it up. That law is soccer’s version of jaywalking – routinely flaunted in games at every level. The infraction is called so rarely, years pass between incidents. Wambach, a famously vocal pitch presence, was determined to draw Pedersen’s attention to it.
Through a spokesperson, members of the U.S. national team declined to speak for this article: “It was a heck of a game, but we’d rather look forward than back.”
D Marie-Eve Nault: We noticed right away. As soon as Erin picked up the ball – the very first time she caught it – [Wambach] was counting for the ref.
Moscato: She doesn’t speak disrespectfully to us as opponents. It’s mostly directed at her teammates and herself. I’m sure there are books about how she affects refs. She’s always in the ref’s ear. We learned a hard lesson that night. We weren’t prepared to speak to the ref in a counterattacking fashion. That wasn’t part of our arsenal. And the refs – they’re humans, too.
Wilkinson: I really don’t listen to her. She’s one of the greatest to ever play, but she also knows all the tricks of the trade. I watch the men’s game and I get so angry at the cheating aspect. It’s creeping into the women’s game.
She’s inspired so many young women and men in that country, but she’s also well aware of the dark arts. She uses them when she needs to. And it worked, to be honest, didn’t it?
Sesselmann: She’s always complaining. If someone tiny brings her down – like Desiree Scott – she’s all [waves hands frantically over head]. And I’m like, dude, you just got taken out by a little girl.
Every time I’m around her, she’s always got something to say. I don’t say anything back. I’m thinking to myself, “Shut up.”
I was by her when she was counting on that play. I wanted to punch her.
McLeod: [Wambach] said some stuff in the press, like, “Erin probably hates me now.” I don’t hold anything against Abby. Abby is a competitor.
I don’t want to hold on to stuff, you know? I’ve let it go. At the time, I was angry and I thought it was cheap and cheating. At the end of the day, the referee made her decision and it was hers. I don’t hold anything against Abby.
Herdman: I said to them afterward, “Do not blame the referee.” [Wambach] was in the ear of that referee. I could hear her from the sideline for 10 minutes, non-stop badgering her, bugging her about every little thing Canada did.
And then she started, “One, two, three …” right in the referee’s face. I said, “Did it not occur to any of you to stop that?” Someone should have stood up at that moment and gone head-to-head with Wambach or the referee. Christine, that’s what we need from you in the future. Someone had to do that. We needed the captain or someone to step in and say, “Ref, that’s unnecessary. Ref, that’s bullshit. Ref, give her a card.”
Pedersen reacted to Wambach, who’s a world leader in the women’s game in [Pedersen’s] mind. We lost that game through Wambach’s leadership and will to win. That is the difference at that point between America and Canada.
Wambach’s gamesmanship provided the match’s key twist. Herdman didn’t see it. Up by a goal, he was on the bench, signalling one of his substitutes to get ready to enter.
Herdman: We were in the middle of getting [defender] Candace Chapman ready to park the bus. That was going to be our strategy – five at the back. We were literally going to park the bus and see the game out. I called her up to the line. She came running over and in the middle of working through it, there’s all this commotion going on. I hadn’t even seen what the referee had done.
I’ve got my assistant shouting, “She can’t come on. She can’t come on. It’s a free kick at the edge of the box.” I go, “What?” Then all I seen was the handball and the penalty and I’m, like, oh my.
In the 78th minute, McLeod collected the ball. Her team was running up the field. She feinted several times, looking for the short outlet. But her targets were marked and she opted for the long ball. It was too late. Pedersen blew her whistle, pointed to a spot inside the Canadian area and began walking back. McLeod’s head is swivelling to the bench, confused. She thought she had been called for handling the ball outside the box, which she knew she hadn’t done. Instead, Wambach’s strategy had worked.
Sesselman: I was so pissed. [Wambach’s] literally counting in the ref’s ear and she’s skipping numbers. She wasn’t even counting in order. And I’m, like, seriously? Like, grow up. But it worked.
Nault: Someone said, “Six seconds.” And I said, “There’s a call for that now?” It was wild. She’s going to make that call in that game at that moment?
McLeod: I was emotional. Everyone was emotional after the game. I don’t ever remember seeing that call in my whole career, including watching on TV. But she had every right to call it. Some people have asked me if I thought the game was fixed. I choose not to believe that. If I was on the other end of that and I had won the game, it would be hard to hear that the only reason we won was because of that.
Most of the team can be seen standing around in disbelief. Many didn’t understand what had happened. American Megan Rapinoe set up a kick just inside the penalty area. Canada arranged a hasty line. Rapinoe’s shot clipped Diana Matheson and caromed into defender Marie-Eve Nault’s arm. Though Nault’s hands were clasped to her chest protectively, mummy-style, a handball and a penalty kick were called.
Nault: It happened so fast that I didn’t realize it was me. It was only after the game when I saw a replay and people were talking about it, like, it hit so-and-so’s hand. I was, like, “God. That was my hand.”
I do remember Rhian yelling at the ref quite a bit. Later, I thought that if everyone was yelling about it, then no one’s agreeing with the call. It’s one thing if everyone’s silent and you’re, like, “Oh, shit. Maybe I could have done something differently.”
But everyone was so emotional about it, which made it a little less. … You just didn’t feel as guilty, I guess.
The only Canadian who approached Pedersen was Melissa Tancredi. She can be seen advancing menacingly, one hand raised, a dark look on her face. The referee is wheeling backward.
F Melissa Tancredi: I said, “You need to take control of this game. You’re losing control.” She just kept telling me to get away, get away. I kept my hand out and said, “You need to control this.”
There was so much anger in me, but I couldn’t … it was disbelief, really. I told her, “You need to do something here. You’re making calls that are just unreal right now.”
And then, two in a row.
Moscato: Rapinoe whipped the ball right at the wall. She isn’t looking to score. She’s looking for a handball. Intelligent on her part.
Sinclair: What the hell’s [Marie-Eve] supposed to do? The ball’s hammered at her from eight yards away. Nine times out of 10, that’s not called, either.
Moscato: You feel robbed. The call itself, and then the handball. How do we stop the bleeding? How is this happening? You feel very vulnerable in that moment. Like, what is going on here?
The penalty was taken by Wambach. 3-3. There were still more than 40 minutes to be played, including added extra time, but Canada never looked right again. They had been mentally unwound by Pedersen’s decisions.
After the clock ticked into extra time of the added extra time, you allowed yourself the freedom to think about a karmic turn. Maybe Canada could flip the script during a penalty shootout. But like the feeling of that morning, you somehow knew it was not to meant to be. A breakdown in the Canadian end in the 123rd minute led to the final collapse and a long, crossed ball that was headed over McLeod’s outstretched hand into the Canadian net.
Filigno: I’d come off, so I was on the bench. In that stadium, the team sits in the crowd. We were arm’s length from the Americans. When that last goal went in, I couldn’t look over my shoulder. I just … it was rough. It was really rough.
Sesselmann: I remember the cross – Heather O’Reilly to [Alex] Morgan’s head. I came out to defend Heather and I should have side-tackled. Even though you do things together as a team, you think you could have done better. I should have stepped harder. I should have tackled there. I should not have left my player. I should have been there when she was going up for the header because I can out-head her. It’s the moment when we felt everything had slipped between our fingers. All that hard work. You feel like you let everyone on your team down. It’s a bad feeling.
Tancredi: I tried to get it on the line. It bounced off my chest and I think Rapinoe got it and played it wide to O’Reilly (Ed. note: Wambach passed it out to O’Reilly). I sprinted my butt off because I knew it was going to Abby. There was no doubt in my mind it was going to her, because this is how they win games.
I got back just enough to get my body on Abby. The ball felt just short, right in front of me, to Alex Morgan. I watched it go over Erin’s hand and I was like, oh my God. That’s still in my mind. Vividly.
M Kaylyn Kyle: I felt gutted. Empty. It was like your boyfriend dumped you, someone important died in your family. All those emotions in one. It was the weirdest feeling ever and I never want to experience it again.
Sinclair: I remember it in slow motion. It was a nice finish.
Pedersen blew the final whistle seconds after Morgan’s goal. The Americans mobbed the field. The Canadians dropped where they stood or wandered about, lost.
Moscato: I laid down. There’s a picture of it. I wasn’t sobbing. I was just tearing up. I felt defeated. Really defeated. That was true sadness.
Wilkinson: I was walking toward my mother. I could see her in the front row. The media was on the field. I don’t remember who interviewed me, but I was a wreck. I don’t usually show much emotion, but my mother was right behind the camera crying her eyes out, and I got choked up. That’s my most vivid memory, unfortunately – just trying to finish that interview so I could go get a hug from my mother.
Schmidt: I know she’s going to hate me for saying this, but I feel like we let [Sinclair] down. Abby Wambach has this amazing cast that supports her and plays her perfect balls all the time. Player for player, we don’t have the same sort of roster as a lot of the best teams. Sincy has to create a lot of her own chances. She came up huge for us. She was the captain that day.
In the immediate aftermath, Sinclair and Pedersen crossed paths backstage. Words were exchanged. What’s at issue is which words, exactly. Pedersen wrote up the exchange in her official match report. FIFA responded with a four-match ban for Sinclair, but chose the Solomonesque solution of imposing it after the Olympics. What did Sinclair say to her?
Sinclair: I said nothing to her on the field. Something happened at a different instance.
What was that?
Sinclair: No, I’m not going to say. No.
Herdman: She claimed Christine called her an effing whore. That’s not Sinc. That is not Christine Sinclair. No way, no how is that Christine Sinclair. That word wouldn’t even go in her head. She wouldn’t even think that. That’s the first thing, never mind say it. That was a major deflection, in my opinion, and I’m not frightened to say it. They were trying to deflect away from something because they knew the heat was coming.
FIFA, which oversees all international soccer matches, including those at the Olympics, tacitly endorsed all of Pedersen’s decisions from that night. But she never refereed at a major international competition again.
While her teammates were headed back to the room, midfielder Diana Matheson was met at the tunnel mouth and escorted away for random drug testing. Along with a pair of escorts, she was placed in a room with American game-winner Alex Morgan. Both players were dehydrated. It was an hour before Matheson could provide a sample.
Matheson: We didn’t speak. Maybe a “hi,” but that’s it. I don’t think I had anything to talk about. I wasn’t happy to be there. She was very much not happy to be drug-tested at that particular game.
Matheson would end up returning to Canada’s hotel via cab long after the rest of the team had left.
Back in the Old Trafford visitors’ room, the rest of the team was attempting to go through the normal post-game routine – ice baths and therapy. Everyone was replaying the game in their heads. Many doubted themselves. Everyone remembers this moment as the other turning point of the night.
McLeod: At the back of my head, I felt like I was responsible for letting the team down. But not one person came up to me and said that. Not one person blamed me. Whether people thought it or not, I don’t know. No one’s ever said that to me. But not only did no one say anything, they stood behind me. That was the moment when I was most proud to be part of this team. We always talk about having each other’s back, and not one person pointed a finger at me. And they could’ve. [Laughs] Pretty easily.
Scott: At first, it was really quiet. A few people were throwing things. A lot of anger and aggression. Everyone took their individual time to deal with what had happened. Then our captain grabbed us all and said, “Guys, we still have one more match. We still have a chance to get on that podium. We play France in two days. Let’s not go home here empty-handed.” That was massive of her to do in a moment where we could have crumbled.
Moscato: Sincy, with tears in her eyes, stood up in the locker room. It was totally silent. Like, nobody was saying anything. And she said, “This is never going to happen again” and “We’re going to get them” and “We’re going to get them next time.” Everybody was just like, “Whoa.” There was a lot behind it. She was angry. There was a lot of anger behind it. It was a special moment, and we believed her. I think that’s kind of why half of us are still playing, because of that moment.
Wilkinson: This is coming from someone who just had the game of her life. We just couldn’t seem to finish it for her. Her saying that – it was powerful stuff.
Kyle: That was the coolest thing. Sincy has come out of her shell more. She was always just one to lead by example. But when she said that to us, we were like, “Yeah. Let’s fucking do this.”
Sinclair: I don’t remember exactly what I said. I remember sitting, us sitting in the locker room, absolutely exhausted. It hit me that I needed to say something. I told them how proud I was of them, that I’d never been more proud to put on the Canadian jersey. That if you’d told us at the start of the Olympics we’d get a chance for a bronze, we’d have taken it in a heartbeat. And that I wasn’t leaving without one.
Herdman was standing outside the locker room, huddled with assistant Ceri Evans, the man whose job it is to track the team’s mental and emotional health.
Herdman: Ceri says, “What are you going to say?” He says, “You have to address the group here.” And you’re feeling it yourself, you know. You’re not feeling very brave at that point and you’re really not sure what you’re going to say.
He said, “Let’s talk through it.” As we start that, Maeve Glass, the little Irish equipment woman, came out of the dressing room crying. Our attention went to her. What’s the matter? She said, “Christine’s just given one of the most powerful speeches I’ve ever heard to the players.” Me and Ceri both looked at each other and went, “Job’s done.”
We didn’t get the whole story and I’ve never dug underneath that. They all walked out of the dressing room looking relieved, and I think the relief was that they hadn’t let Christine down.
Herdman had one last duty. He was expected to address the media in a formal press conference. Routinely, the coach of the losing team speaks first. Herdman didn’t show up, so U.S. coach Pia Sundhage went ahead. Understandably, she wasn’t particularly apologetic. By Canadian lights, the whole thing was a bit triumphal.
When Herdman did appear, he was glassy-eyed, clearly at a loss. The first question was about the call. Herdman shrugged and said, “It is what it is.”
I was sitting in that audience, at a percolating simmer. When he gave that boilerplate answer, I visibly flinched. Not terribly professional, but it was an odd sort of night. Herdman spotted me and called me out. I reminded him that he was speaking on behalf of a whole country that would feel in that moment that it had been cheated. We had an uncomfortable staring contest, followed by a little bit of “That good enough for you?” chirping between questions.
Herdman’s answers gradually became more expansive as the emotion got hold of him.
Herdman: I could see you. You were angry. I wanted to be a good Canadian, you know what I mean? My instinct was, “Don’t go there.” But you kept going. I remember sitting there going, “Fuck off,” you know. Like, in my mind. Fuck off ’cause I’m going to blow. It was great. It was a real good moment because I did lose it. It came out a bit like, “What do you think? How do you think we’re feeling?” I wanted to say we were robbed. I think I said something about how I didn’t think the ref would sleep well tonight. I remember you there. I remember the American girl [former U.S. player] Brandi Chastain was about four seats behind you. I could see she knew. She knew. As she walked out, she pulled my arm and said, “You didn’t deserve that.”
The players still had to walk the gauntlet of the mixed zone – a roughly 20-metre-long tented corridor behind Old Trafford leading to their bus. Tancredi was one of the first to come out. She trudged through the shrieking media, and got on the bus. Then she came back, weeping, jaw working side to side, and unloaded: “I said [to the ref], “I hope you can sleep tonight. Put on your American jersey. That’s who you played for today.”
Tancredi: I don’t remember saying that, but that’s amazing. Oh my gosh.
Sinclair was more incendiary. She suggested a fix: “We feel like we didn’t lose. We feel like it was taken from us. It’s a shame in a game like that, that was so important, the ref decided the result before it started.” Offered repeated chances, she has never walked back on those statements.
Sinclair: I remember talking to John before going into the mixed zone and he said, “Just speak from the heart.” It was spur of the moment. It’s one of the hardest things about the Olympics, doesn’t matter the result. Before you can calm down and gather your thoughts, you’ve got 10 cameras in your face.
Many wept openly. Sinclair was a notable exception. Few of them raged. Instead, they leaned up against the barricades, totally spent, hanging their heads and sobbing in a discomfitingly intimate way. It was a remarkable scene, a level of emotion you just do not see in professional sports. The only word I can think to describe it is “electric.”
After Sinclair scored her third and Pedersen took over, that night seemed charged and portentous. Even in the moment, you realized you were in the middle of history. It was apparent to everyone, except perhaps the players themselves.
Wilkinson: The bus ride back to the hotel was so quiet. All you could hear was sniffling. John let us cry. He gave us the night to mourn that game. You couldn’t just say, “Okay, next.” We needed to cry about it, and be angry and sad and blah, blah, blah, and then move on. Like, okay, it’s not helpful any more. Done. Move on. So we did our 24 hours of crying and moved on. I remember breakfast the next morning. There were a lot of red-rimmed eyes.
McLeod: It doesn’t always go your way. I feel like you have to accept that. I really believe you make your own luck. I don’t think it’s a fluke that we won or lost. We gave everything that we had in that game. I have absolutely no regrets.
Canada returned immediately to its Olympic media bubble – no Twitter or Facebook or newspapers. Herdman had them hermetically sealed. The next morning, he did show them a collection of messages from prominent Canadians, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Many recall how shocked they were by the force of support.
Three days later, they won a bronze against France. The winning goal came on Canada’s only shot on target of the entire game, and through an unlikely source – elfin Diana Matheson. She was the only player who had missed Sinclair’s speech.
Post-game, they travelled to London for the first time to receive their medals. After nearly three weeks at the Olympics, they were finally going to the Olympics. That’s when it began to dawn on them – they were cult heroes. That feeling would grow exponentially when they returned to Canada. It still is.
Matheson: So many people in London seemed to care about it, which was cool. Actually, the volunteer in the drug-testing room told me it was the most exciting match he’d ever seen at Old Trafford. But he was a Manchester City fan, so … [Laughs].
Even the cab driver who took us to the press conference after we got our medals was super-excited to be driving us. That was a small taste of it what it was like at home.
Scott: When I came back to Winnipeg, the first thing out of everyone’s mouths was, “You guys got robbed.” Second thing was, “You still did great. You got a bronze.”
But the bronze didn’t even matter to people. That U.S.-Canada game was the game of everyone’s lives in Canada, and you felt that when you got back home.
We weren’t the only ones who felt that disappointment. It seemed like all of Canada felt they were on that field and they lost that game.
If we’d won gold, it would have been a great story to write, but that loss keeps us going to this day.
Zurrer: I came out of the airport and there were hundreds of people. You’ve got grandmas walking with canes, and they’re waving their canes they’re so angry. Probably never watched a soccer game in their lives, but they watched that one for 120 minutes.
Schmidt: Even now, people will say, “Congrats on the gold medal.” We definitely didn’t win a gold medal, but I’m glad you think we did. That’s how much Canada embraces the turmoil that went on there. They love us.
McLeod: The next year, I was walking in downtown Chicago. This woman came up to me and she was bawling. She said, “You were so inspiring in that game.” Some random Canadian in the middle of Chicago. That’s when I grasped the impact this had.
Tancredi: It brought our country together like nothing I’ve seen before. To this day, people are still coming up to me with their reactions to that game. The unreal thing is that I was part of that game, I was on that field playing, and they can tell the story of it better than I can. They can do it play by play. And I’m like, “Oh, I didn’t know that happened.” I haven’t watched the full game, to be honest.
Sinclair appears to be the only person who was on the field that night whose memories haven’t ossified into something romantic. She still seems angry when she talks about it.
Sinclair: It’s weird. Everyone talks about that game, and I just say, “We lost. We lost.” My uncle showed me a list of people that had scored a hat trick at Old Trafford. I said to him, “I guarantee you I’m the only one up there who lost.”
No Canadian player or official spoke to Pedersen after the game, or has since. It’s not clear what became of her career. According to FIFA, she resigned as an international official in 2013. Efforts to contact her for this piece were unsuccessful.
Wilkinson: Diana Matheson and I played for a team in Norway and one of our teammates died not long before the Olympics, so we committed to going back to that club [LSK Kvinner] for the end of the season because it was their push for the championship. We joked that it would be kind of funny if we ran in to her. Even the coaches joked about it. And then they came in before our first game back and they said, “Look, she’s reffing.”
Diana and I were laughing, and then we saw that they were serious. It was interesting. All three of us – Diana and I and the ref – tried to ignore each other. Nothing was said. I think I probably shook her hand a little harder than necessary.
Recently, Herdman was on a work trip in France. The hotel he was staying at was hosting a refereeing conference. A woman approached his table in the lounge.
Herdman: She says, “I know who you are.” And I said, “Okay.” And she said, “You don’t know who I am.” “No.” She says, “Well, this is fate. I was the assistant referee in that game, and I want to apologize.” She felt responsible. She felt like she could have impacted it through her comments. She said everything happened too fast.
Zurrer: When you’re going through it, it’s hard not to blame someone. But I know [Pedersen] got ripped apart in the media. It’s her life, too. It’s her career. She has to make these decisions. I sympathize with her now. It’s a tough job. I wouldn’t want to do it.
Herdman: She’s got a lot of abuse from this. I think it was a turning point in her life and that’s what I’m sad for – that Canada made mistakes; the ref makes mistakes. And she’s no longer involved [in the international game] and that doesn’t sit right with us, you know. We could have taken more responsibility for what was happening out there. That’s what we’ll always kick ourselves with.
Many of the Canadian players returned almost immediately after the Olympics to their regular jobs. In many instances, the bitterest rivals in women’s soccer were now teammates on professional clubs. Do you talk about that game with your American colleagues?
Tancredi: No one’s ever brought it up. They knew how heartbroken we were. I’m not ready to joke about it. Call me in five years, maybe. I think we both understand how important that game was for our sport. Both sides respect that. They don’t shove it in our faces. So, no, no one’s ever really brought it up.
Sesselmann: When we’re playing against each other, we’re at each other’s throats. But when we’re in [a pro club] environment, it’s friendly banter back and forth: “We should have won that game.” “No, you shouldn’t have won. We outplayed you.” “No, you didn’t.” “We outplayed you and you guys got that crappy call that shouldn’t have been called.” “What are you talking about? It was the right call.”
Scott: It’s not brought up a lot. We will not agree. We will agree to disagree. I remember one conversation we were … it was just a little bit of banter. But it was not too friendly.
Filigno: We don’t bring it up. We just won’t. They know. It’s a completely awkward situation. I don’t know how the other girls are with their American teammates.
Some say they joke about it.
Filigno: They joke about it?
Well, maybe not “joke.” Banter.
Filigno: No. They haven’t. No, no, no, no. I could not even joke about it. It still bothers me. It’s a good thing they don’t bring it up.
That feeling – the push/pull of professional proximity and patriotic distance amplified enormously by just one match – animates what may be the greatest single rivalry in women’s team sport.
McLeod: That first rematch against the U.S. at BMO Field. It had been a long time since that game (Ed. note: 10 months), and people were still pissed. It was awesome.
Sometimes Canadian soccer fans can be a bit quiet and, frankly, lame. That was the first time I was like, yeah, Canadian soccer fans can be awesome.
Every woman who was there that night still speaks about it in a hush. Their memories are either muddy or startlingly clear. They remember it in snapshots. Very little of the actual game has stuck with them. Most have never watched it, and promise never to do so. All of them acknowledge two things – that this contest reached a level that may never be matched, and that the dramatic way it turned is the absolute key to its impact. Rarely has so much been won in a defeat.
Still, don’t you wish you could go back and do it again? Trade that bronze for gold?
Herdman: No, I wouldn’t. Because the feeling of the day after that game is unique. This outpour from the country. Three years later, we still get stopped. It’s crazy.
I don’t think Canada would have remembered it without that controversy. Who remembers the bronze-medal match? Apart from Matheson’s goal, you can’t even name the lineup.
But people will never forget that moment. People won’t let us forget it.
Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.