Christine Sinclair’s teammates oohed and aahed as they took the field Sunday for an afternoon practice at B.C. Place. Several members of the national women’s team snapped shots of the giant scoreboard, which had a new look: “Christine Sinclair Place,” it now read. “Sincy Place,” they immediately rechristened it. “Thanks for having us, Sinc,” one said good-humoredly.
The only player who seemed unmoved was the Burnaby, B.C., native who’d just had one of Canada’s largest stadiums temporarily named for her. Ms. Sinclair, 40, put her head down and jogged onto the pitch, her brown ponytail bobbing behind her, her piercing blue eyes fixed on the turf. There was still work to do, after all.
Even when Canada’s steely-eyed captain screams in victory after a huge goal, her wide, balletic arms outstretched, her face never seems to relax, her eyes never stop burning, her jaw stays clenched. And even now, on the eve of her final game for Canada, Ms. Sinclair was keeping a normal routine, she said, treating the national camp and two-game exhibition series against Australia like any other.
Clearly, Ms. Sinclair’s burning competitive streak and intensity – the very qualities that had made her such a good leader – don’t mesh with hubbub and celebration. Ms. Sinclair had long been planning to pull a Ted Williams and quietly exit the game without fanfare, as the baseball star had, but her family and friends were having none of it. She grudgingly consented to this hero’s send-off, which will soon reach its wrenching coda.
The operatic outpouring began amid a downpour on Friday in suburban Victoria, where a soggy Ms. Sinclair entered a sold-out Starlight Stadium to a thunderous ovation. More than 41,000 are planning to attend Tuesday’s friendly match against the Matildas in Vancouver, just to see Ms. Sinclair dance down the pitch one last time for Canada.
The merciless, creative forward is considered by many to be the greatest of all time. She’s played on the national team 23 years, has 190 goals – the most goals in international soccer history, male or female – and Tuesday’s game will be her 331st appearance for Canada. She has also won an Olympic gold medal and two championships with the National Women’s Soccer League’s Portland Thorns.
She did all this without having superstars backing her on the national team, the way Mia Hamm and Abby Wambach did – the two U.S. players whose scoring records she smashed.
At home, she exposed the limits and possibilities of the women’s game, leaving it forever changed.
Heights that seemed unimaginable for a little kid from Burnaby, Ms. Sinclair said Sunday, in her final media conference for the national squad. Asked to speak to the girls hoping to follow her, she said: “Just dream. It’s a lot of work, but man, it’s the best job in the world. Just dream – and go for it.”
As bombastic and dynamic and fierce as Ms. Sinclair is on the field, she is the antithesis of all that off it. There’s so much heat inside her, people sometimes come away thinking that she is cold. She’s just not built for celebrity. She doesn’t play any game lightly – not small talk with strangers, not four-on-fours at practice, and certainly not friendlies against Australia.
“It’s not that I want to be standoffish, but I know I can seem that way,” Ms. Sinclair wrote in her memoir, Playing the Long Game. “Outside of sports, I was a shy kid. Super shy. Awkwardly shy.”
She added, “It’s a work in progress for me to step out of my comfort zone. And even in my comfort zone, I’m usually a quiet person.”
Similar to Canadian hockey stars Sidney Crosby or Hayley Wickenheiser, Ms. Sinclair started out playing against kids much older and bigger than her. At four, she joined the under-seven team with the local club in Burnaby. She was 11 when she first made B.C.’s under-14 provincial team.
She was 15 when Canada’s newly installed senior women’s soccer coach, Even Pellerud, discovered her. The Norwegian-born coach had essentially been handed a blank slate; there was no real national program for him to build on. “I want her,” Mr. Pellerud said after watching Ms. Sinclair play, clocking her speed, smarts, and skills, she recalls in her memoir. Told Ms. Sinclair was too young, Mr. Pellerud said, “I still want her.”
A few months later Mr. Pellerud gave a 16-year-old Ms. Sinclair her national debut at the 2000 Algarve Cup, where Ms. Sinclair – the squad’s youngest player, by far – lodged three goals in four games.
She secured a spot herself in the history books after scoring her 185th goal in January, 2020, surpassing the retired Ms. Wambach. But she had captured the hearts and imagination of Canadians a decade earlier, after the team led the United States 3-2 late in the Olympic semi-final at the London Games. All three goals were Ms. Sinclair’s. Then the ref called a controversial foul, which ultimately led to the United States tying the game and American Alex Morgan heading in the 4-3 winner in extra time.
Yet what her teammates remember most is what Ms. Sinclair did next. She told her teammates, many of whom were still sobbing on the bench, that she had never been prouder of them. But the tournament wasn’t over yet: “We have a [expletive] bronze medal to win.” And win they did.
“Great athletes make everyone around them better,” said Ms. Wickenheiser, the retired Canadian hockey great. Ms. Sinclair, she said, not only delivered in the most tense and revealing moments, but she did it both on and off the pitch: “She elevated Canadian women’s soccer and along the way demanded better treatment and accountability for the women’s game in Canada.”
Indeed, Ms. Sinclair, who has a maple leaf tattooed on her back, has never failed to call out the national soccer federation for unequal treatment, comments that may ultimately cost her the opportunity to coach for Les Rouges. She used her final media conference to call out the lack of support for youth and national teams and the lack of a professional league for women.
“For a long time in Canada, players have reached the national team by chance instead of design,” said Ms. Sinclair, noting that at the last women’s World Cup, Canada and Haiti were the only countries without a professional development league. “Being compared to Haiti is scary.” She added: If things don’t change, teams will continue to catch and surpass Canada.
For Ms. Sinclair, there is still more soccer to play. She is planning to lace up for one more season in Portland with the Thorns. And her future after that will be in soccer, she says, likely in a coaching role. “This game’s been my life since I was four,” she said Sunday. “I’m not just quitting cold turkey.”