The arc of the current generation of the Canadian women’s national soccer team – the most roundly admired non-hockey outfit this country has produced – starts in 2011.
If everything falls into place, it completes over the next month in France during the 2019 Women’s World Cup.
A good team is fun, but a good story more so. You need a recognizable cast that hits the right beats over a considerable stretch of time before finally going over the top. That’s what makes a team special. Few have got the set-up quite as right as this one.
In 2011, Canada was at the World Cup in Germany. It had the feel of a great reveal. Christine Sinclair was at the height of her powers. When hasn’t she been? But she was still unfamiliar to casual fans, which was to say most people.
The team had a new Italian coach, Carolina Morace, and talked a lot of convincing nonsense about advanced training systems. In large part, that meant the bunch of them spending all of their time working out in Italy, which was highly convenient for Morace.
Canada got absolutely rollicked at that World Cup. Competitive in the first game against Germany – Sinclair had her nose broken by a flying elbow – and then wiped out by France in the second. That was it. Tournament effectively over. Canada had to wait another week before losing a third, meaningless game, which left it dead last.
In an especially cruel touch after the match against France, they’d parked the team buses one behind the other. The Canadians trudged out to do their media duties, while the French whooped it up so loudly that their Greyhound was rocking side-to-side. This went on for 20 full minutes.
Beating Canada was a moment for France. For Canada, it was a very different sort of marker. The women had been hitters – a fourth-place finisher at the 2003 Women’s World Cup. Now they were the ones getting hit. The world was catching up to them and maybe passing them by. You could read that in the body language.
“My heart’s broken,” Canadian goalkeeper Kristina LeBlanc said at the time. It wasn’t a tossed-off quote. You could see she meant it.
I was in the mixed zone frantically trying to rebook a flight. The idea of sticking around to chart the team’s disappointment for five more days was too depressing to bear.
That moment connected directly to the 2012 London Games. A year later, no one fancied Canada. It was the one most likely to fold.
Instead, the same group grabbed hold of the national imagination in its Olympic semi-final against the United States. The Americans were and remain the monolithic squad of women’s soccer.
That game remains the most electric sports event I have ever had the good luck to attend. It was played on a holiday Monday back home. It was near the end of a Games in which the Canadian team writ large hadn’t done much. A win guaranteed the country’s first team medal in a mainstream summer sport in 80 years, against a squad the Canadian women had not beaten in 11. Every detail of the potential storyline was perfect.
I remember that night in snapshots – the last of Sinclair’s three goals, perhaps the finest one I’ve ever seen scored live; the referee’s call that robbed Canada of its chance; the confusion on press row; the just-as-ridiculous penalty call that swung momentum; the eventual, last-second collapse; the charged news conferences that followed; the desperate sadness in the mixed zone; first learning of the volume of fury in Canada; the fist fight between American and Canadian fans in the lobby bar of our Manchester hotel (well, I only heard about that one, but I like to imagine it was epic).
After it was over, a few of us were waiting to get on the last media bus that would take us from Old Trafford back into the downtown. It was either very late or very early.
We were standing in the middle of a vast, empty and completely still parking lot. It was a lovely, cool night, the sort that lends itself to thoughtfulness. A rumpled American journo sidled up to us.
“Some game,” he said.
Yup. Some game.
“Anyone want to smoke a J?”
And though I don’t partake, it seemed wrong to decline. It had been that sort of night.
That game – possibly the most famous and binding non-combat loss in our history – made the Canadian women’s soccer team a Very Big Deal.
The Canadians were roundly liked before it. After being bizarrely thwarted, on foreign soil, by our greatest rivals, in the midst of the world’s most-watched sporting event, they were wrapped in the flag and made a national cause. This country doesn’t do causes often or well. But we picked right on that one.
“It seemed like all of Canada felt they were on that field and they lost that game,” midfielder Desiree Scott would say years later. “If we’d won gold, it would have been a great story to write, but that loss keeps us going to this day.”
Even if you didn’t particularly care for the sport, you wanted this specific group of competitors to do well. They were owed, on all our behalves.
That part of the story remains a work in progress. The obvious final chapter was the 2015 Women’s World Cup held in Canada.
But the Canadians – still hanging on to their golden generation from London despite advancing age – couldn’t find a way through. They lost to England in the quarters. It was a ragged contest that helped another incipient powerhouse find its breakout moment.
That prompted a wave of renewal. The stalwarts – Sinclair prime among them – remained, but the edges of the roster were getting much younger.
At Rio 2016, Canada won bronze for the second successive Olympics. But it didn’t have quite the same oomph as the first time around. How could it? In the postgame presser, Canadian manager John Herdman joked that Sinclair would carry on despite her age, maybe as a goalkeeper.
Herdman – a charismatic presence who’d helped push Canada near the top with a combination of cheerleading, tactical nous and “brain science” – left a couple of years later to take over the national men’s team. In so doing, he defied physics – stepping up and down at the same time.
The new boss, Herdman’s Danish assistant, Kenneth Heiner-Moller, had a more … well, relaxed is the wrong word. Call it a smouldering approach.
Given the long gap between major tournaments, Heiner-Moller put his faith in watching what he’d been given grow on its own. A few days shy of her 36th birthday, Sinclair remains the centrepiece. She enters the World Cup three goals from the scoring record in international competition – 184.
If she surpasses that mark in France, Sinclair will be outstripping American Abby Wambach. Wambach was the pantomime villain who badgered the referee into making a horrendous six-second call in that game in Manchester, turning the contest. In so doing, she made this Canadian team legendary.
Being passed by the woman she jobbed – that would be poetic, as well as prosaic.
Sinclair’s supporting cast is a mix of innocence and experience.
On the innocent side, striker Jordyn Huitema, 18, already bound to European pro power Paris Saint-Germain; and 21-year-old midfield string-puller Jessie Fleming, an engineering student at UCLA.
Along with the veterans (Scott and Sophie Schmidt being the other standouts), there is a ‘tweener generation of still-young established stars such as Lyon defender Kadeisha Buchanan, 23, and the team’s second-leading scorer, Manchester City forward Janine Beckie, 24.
For the first time, the team’s youngest members also have a significant number of caps. This isn’t going to be an “Oh God, I can’t believe I’m here” moment for anyone.
Canada’s results over this year have been positive – especially in terms of goals allowed (1) – but it has yet to beat a brand-name team. It’s not a poor run into a major tournament, nor is it the sort that has neutrals excited. The more things change and all that.
Once again, nobody thinks Canada can win this thing. Twenty-four countries qualified. Vegas has Canada at 22-to-1 odds, eighth best. Per the usual, the Americans are favoured, followed by the hosts. Some teams are dark horses before it starts. Canada didn’t make the final gate.
The knocks? Sinclair can still score, but her teammates can’t find reliable ways to get her the ball. The other strikers are young and the midfield shaky. Their opening-round group is tougher than usual – 2017 European champions, Netherlands; Oceania champions, New Zealand; and a rapidly improving Cameroon team.
Most important, the Canadians have yet to prove they can stare down a big-time opponent.
So no rational person would pick them to win. I am. But no rational person.
I believe Canada will win this thing not because of my deep understanding of the performance capacities of 24 national women’s soccer sides (I don’t have that), but because the story is too good not to. Good stories have a way of rounding out.
If you can convince yourself that something was meant to happen, it often has a way of doing so. We’ve all felt this in our own lives.
It’s just as real a phenomenon as luck or momentum. And, although they don’t say it out loud any more, no one puts more faith in those sorts of ephemeral things than an elite athlete. All Canada needs is a couple of weeks worth of Sinclair at her best, one big push from everyone else and a bit of good fortune. That’s a lot to need, but it is also all.
If Canada wins its group – far from a certainty – it would likely play Australia in the quarters. After that, the United States or Germany, another strong favourite. After that, who knows. Predictions are a mug’s game, but a fun way to pass the time.
This will get serious when the knockout rounds begin – on June 25 or so. After considerable preamble, the tournament speeds up at that point. It’s only seven days between the Round of 16 and the semi-finals.
For a good while now, I’ve had it marked down as the most significant week in the 2019 national sports calendar. That will be the moment the entire country gets interested again.
It is the nature of international soccer to capture your attention in short bursts and all-consumingly. By sandwiching its major tournaments – World Cup and Olympics – into the length of a single year, followed by three years of calm, the effect is exacerbated in women’s soccer. You can spend a long time not thinking about this team at all.
But Canada is back now, with an opportunity to finish what it failed to start eight years ago. Should it manage it, it would put 2019 up there with 1972, 1987 and 2010 – the vintage harvests of Canadian sports fandom.
Given the odds, it probably won’t end up that way. Which is why, once it does, you’ll remember it.