After Canada won its first-ever soccer gold medal via shootout in Yokohama, Christine Sinclair came through the mixed zone carrying a ball.
She talked for a while before someone decided to ask if that was the ball.
“I don’t know,” Sinclair said. “FIFA gave me this. But I definitely took a ball from the field. So now I have two.”
Both will be needed in the still theoretical, but rapidly expanding, Museum of Canadian Soccer History.
If 2021 had a local sports theme it was “the year this country became a power at the world’s game.”
As it sits now, Canada’s women’s team is ranked sixth in the world, while the men’s team sits 40th. Combined, that’s a better standing than Russia, Ireland, Nigeria, Turkey and a whole bunch of other places we think of as soccer nations (and who would certainly think of themselves that way).
Two moments defined this shift.
The first was the tournament in Tokyo. The women’s team has an affinity for the Games (which is a backhanded way of saying they have a strange disaffinity for the World Cup). It scrapes victories that should probably be losses on the Olympic stage.
Canada’s journey through that tournament did not summon to mind cutting a swath, a la the Brazil of our imagination. It was more of an Argentinean slog through the best teams in the world.
The women won only one game in the round-robin. They couldn’t score against Brazil and needed penalties to advance out of the quarters. An iffy penalty was the only difference in their 1-0 win over a weary and bored-looking U.S. team in the semis. And they were outplayed by Sweden for long stretches in the gold-medal game.
But flashy teams don’t win soccer tournaments. Grinders do. It took Canada a decade to figure that out, but they managed it just in time. Now there can be an orderly handoff between the Christine Sinclair generation and the fully arrived Ashley Lawrence/Kadeisha Buchanan generation.
But if that result was a surprise, it was only a mild one. Canada’s women have been in the conversation for ages.
It was the men who took big, galloping leaps from something very close to buffoonery to something that’s beginning to look like genuine quality.
Everyone talks about Alphonso Davies, which is as it should be, but let’s spare a moment to speak on behalf of Jonathan David’s 2021.
David was developed in obscurity in Ottawa. Three years ago, he was acquired by the Belgian side, Gent. Gent isn’t a great team, but it has a reputation for developing talent. A little more than a year ago, he was bought for a lot of money by the French club Lille.
This should have been big news back home, but it wasn’t. Because it’s soccer in Canada.
This season – his second campaign in a top-tier league – David leads all scorers in France.
Lionel Messi plays in France. Kylian Mbappé plays with Lionel Messi in France. Leading the scoring in France means you are a great, big European deal.
David’s not going to be at Lille for long. Soon, he’ll be at a gigantic English or Spanish club. If things continue as they are, that will give Canada two of the biggest-name players in the world. And neither of them is older than 21.
Every soccer superpower would chop off a finger to have two players of this quality, playing in big games, leading their sides, and yet so young. To get one in a generation is a minor miracle. Two is the sort of the thing that turns mediocre teams into great ones.
Guided by Davies and David, Canada leads the final stage of North American qualifying for Qatar 2022. With any luck, it will have its ticket punched by February. Then we can start talking about chances and what might need to happen for this country to become the next, say, nineties-era Romania – a fascinating spoiler with a puncher’s chance against just about anybody.
If the women’s moment was the entire Olympic tournament, the men’s moment was far more brief.
It lasted about 10 seconds, front to back. In that time, Davies scored the most up-out-of-your-seat goal in Canadian sports history.
Okay, it wasn’t a big game (against Panama). Relatively few people were watching. But once you saw it – the hopeless sprint to a lost cause, the steal, the taking of control, the dive-bombing of goal, the feint, the pinpoint shot with his body collapsing backward – you knew you had witnessed greatness.
That goal went around the world in 80 hours. It sent a message to all the soccer-loving nations on Earth – you do not want to play Canada anymore. Canada can make things very bad for you.
That message was amplified in November in Edmonton. No team has ever looked less up for it than Mexico did that night in wind chills of minus 15. Canada had finally figured out that it can combine geography with demography to beat you.
Does that translate into doing something at a World Cup? Let’s wait and see how the matchups look. If history is our guide, Canada’s World Cup is probably at home in 2026, not the one in 2022. That should be a trial run.
But inertia in sport is funny. Don’t say “momentum.” People hate that word now. It makes it sound like sports is part magic, which makes the dieticians, sports psychologists and assorted other hangers-on feel bad about themselves.
But inertia is a scientific fact. An object in motion tends to stay in motion. As far as soccer goes, no country on Earth made up more ground on the rest of the world in 2021 than Canada did. We’ll see if that leaves enough residual energy for an extended burst through 2022 as well.