A few years after Canada was robbed in the greatest game of women’s international soccer yet played, Christine Sinclair tried to describe how the match felt.
“It was the most confident I ever felt about myself and the team,” Ms. Sinclair said of that 2012 Olympic semi-final against the United States. “We’d score. They’d score. Let’s do it again. 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 thing that sticks out about that description is the deployment of the word “we.”
“We” didn’t score in that game. Ms. Sinclair did. She had all three Canadian goals – one of them outrageously skilled. An all-timer.
She has never been better than she was that night, and what she recalls about it is how good the team was.
That – and not a statistic – is why Ms. Sinclair is the greatest non-hockey-playing team athlete in Canadian history.
But people require statistics before they will embrace superlatives. It’s a CSI world and people need hard proof. Now they have that, too.
Ms. Sinclair scored her 185th international goal on Wednesday, passing American Abby Wambach (the villain in that semi eight years ago) for first on the career list.
By the time Ms. Sinclair wraps up her career, this record will be so far out of sight, it is difficult (but never impossible) to imagine it falling.
It’s a little like baseball star Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hit streak – the game has changed so much since the time that mark was set, that it is unfair to expect anyone to do it again.
Under whatever conditions, in soccer terms, 185 goals is a ridiculous number.
A good forward might score a goal every couple of games. A great one, two out of every three. You do the math. This should be impossible.
It requires not only a sky-high talent level, but a preposterously long and consistent career.
Ms. Sinclair scored the first of her 185 when she was 16. She’s 36 and still at it.
Pele had 77 international goals.
Lionel Messi has 70.
Diego Maradona – Diego Maradona! – had 34.
Those are, for my money, the three best soccer players in history. Ms. Sinclair hasn’t just beaten them. She’s lapped them.
Nonetheless, she has been consistently undervalued outside this country for the entirety of her career.
Her first mistake was not being born in the United States. That national program is so much bigger, so much louder and so much more self-promoting than any other it swamps the rest of the world.
If Ms. Sinclair were American, the United States would be building statues of her. But in Canada, a superlative of the first rank passes with a small round of applause and then on to the next.
Her second handicap is that she has never been a showy player. Ms. Sinclair doesn’t dance around opponents or go on great, galloping runs from midfield.
She has the poacher’s habit of blending into her surroundings for large parts of the game and then popping up suddenly in exactly the right position. As a result, her goals can often look easy.
If they were, everyone would have scored 185 of them. If the point of most team sports is to put the ball in the net rather than to look impressive while attempting to do so, Ms. Sinclair has reached that higher level.
Ms. Sinclair puts you in the mind of a player such as Germany’s Miroslav Klose. Mr. Klose also had the habit of materializing in the midst of games in the perfect spot. He was what they call a classic No. 9.
But not flashy. Never loud. Didn’t talk himself up.
He did score the most goals in World Cup history, but you won’t find him in any top-10 lists. That’s the curse of the quiet star.
Ms. Sinclair has those same habits.
In conversation, she can be painfully shy. The only place she allows herself the luxury of being loud is on the field. She also ruthlessly deflects all praise. It’s like she’s a human deflector shield for compliments.
My greatest memory of Ms. Sinclair is the aftermath of that U.S.-Canada game in London. Her teammates came out in the media zone somewhere between devastated and catatonic. There were a lot of tears. The atmosphere was more charged than any I’d experienced before or since.
Only Ms. Sinclair was in total control of herself. Had you not been listening to what she was saying, you’d have thought her a little blasé about the whole ‘ripped off by the referee’ thing.
But her words were so hard – “It’s a shame in a game like that, that was so important, the ref decided the result before it started” – you could hardly believe you were hearing them right.
She got suspended for her trouble. Given multiple chances to soften her stand, she refused. Ms. Sinclair just took her punishment and moved on.
That evening and her reaction to it turned Ms. Sinclair into a national hero, a first among equals. When you think of toughness, you think of the Canadian women’s soccer team.
She’s had highlights in her career – two Olympic podiums prime among them – but the important individual awards have eluded her. Ms. Sinclair’s never been a finalist for the best FIFA women’s player.
How the career scorer never manages to be considered among a sport’s best players is, perversely, its own weird sort of accomplishment. Alongside soccer, Ms. Sinclair must also be an incredible player of hide-and-seek.
One hopes the goal record prompts an international reconsideration of Ms. Sinclair’s seminal place in the women’s game. She isn’t up there with the likes of Germany’s Birgit Prinz, The U.S.'s Mia Hamm and Brazil’s Marta. They’re now up there with her.
But even if that doesn’t happen, Canada knows.
Ms. Sinclair deserves to be thought of along with Gretzky and Orr. She isn’t one of the best. She’s one of those rare athletes who defines what best looks like for future generations.