Diana Matheson won the last of her 203 caps for Canada in a 1-0 win over Scotland at the Algarve Cup in March, 2019.
A year later, the 35-year-old veteran is finally ready to step back on the field as eighth-ranked Canada opens play Wednesday against No. 4 France in Calais at the Tournoi de France.
It has been a journey getting back, with what seemed to be a minor injury turning into a painful detour – and a sixth surgery.
“I’d had some old ligament damage in that toe from the year before,” Matheson said. “It had been bothering me for ages but it was nothing we could really fix. So I’d still been playing on it. It was really innocuous.
“In the Scotland game, it just started to hurt a bit more. So I went down toward the end of the game and then went off thinking it wasn’t too much at the time. And the medical staff didn’t think much of it. As it went on, it started to hurt more and more.”
It turned out Matheson had an avulsion fracture in her toe – the ligament had pulled off a little piece of bone.
“Which in itself wasn’t terrible, but the little piece of bone was in a spot where it was hitting a nerve, so I was just getting constant nerve pain every time I walked or tried to run,” the native of Oakville, Ont., said.
It took a while to figure out the problem. And time was pressing with the World Cup in France looming in July.
“We tried a few things that were non-invasive, which didn’t work unfortunately. Eventually it was clear I couldn’t do it without surgery.”
Wearing a boot after surgery, Matheson turned TV pundit during the World Cup and won kudos for her analysis and dry sense of humour.
The surgery took care of more than just her toe. Matheson says her foot had taken “some beatings over the years and wasn’t in a great place.”
Her Toronto surgeon took out the bone piece that was hitting the nerve and cleaned out some other stuff.
“Hopefully, the foot is stronger than it’s been over the last few years,” she said.
Coach Kenneth Heiner-Moller is delighted to get Matheson back, citing her experience and a “soccer brain [that] is pretty massive.”
“She understands the game. ... She knows the game from different perspectives and positions,” he added.
After facing France, the Canadian women play the third-ranked Netherlands on Saturday and No. 9 Brazil on March 10 with all three matches at Stade de l’Épopée. Heiner-Moller is using the same squad he took to the recent CONCACAF Olympic qualifier plus Matheson and defender Vanessa Gilles.
Canada is 5-6-3 against France, including a 1-0 quarter-final victory at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Canada also beat France 1-0 for the bronze medal at the 2012 London Games.
Matheson scored the decisive Olympic goal in stoppage time after the Canadians had weathered a second-half storm that saw the French hit the woodwork twice and Desiree Scott make a goal-line clearance.
Matheson pounced on a rebound and knocked it in, wheeling away in joy – arms outstretched and then pointing to the Canadian crest on her jersey in celebration of one of Canada’s most important goals.
“I happened to be in the right spot at the right time,” Matheson said modestly.
The French won 1-0 last time out in an April, 2018, friendly in Rennes.
Matheson’s 200-plus caps and 170-plus games for club and college (Princeton) have come at a cost.
In 2010, she was sidelined by a broken metatarsal bone in her left foot.
After surgery to repair torn knee cartilage in November, 2011, she recovered in time to play in the 2012 Olympics. She won another injury battle to make the 2015 World Cup roster after tearing her anterior cruciate ligament in a friendly against Japan in October, 2014. She made it back despite breaking the fifth metatarsal in her right foot during her comeback.
She was an unused substitute for the first four games at that World Cup before starting the quarter-final loss against England.
In March, 2017, she underwent surgery to repair the same anterior cruciate ligament after going down on an innocent play during an intrasquad game training with Canada at a camp in Los Angeles.
This latest injury is finally behind her.
“The toe has been feeling great for a while,” Matheson said.
“The body’s feeling good. Honestly, better than it has in a few years now, which is great.”