One: The revolution's here on a summer afternoon in Toronto
At first the woman doesn't want to join in. It's fun, this thing that's unfolding, but it's very coarse and very male. Anyone can read her thoughts, just looking at her face. She's about forty years old and a little frightened. She looks around like a hesitant swimmer eyeing cold lake water, unsure of how immersed in this she wants to be. She's wearing jeans and a red hoodie, for Canada. She takes off her sunglasses, pulls down the cap, red too, for Canada.
The woman is standing. We are all standing in this packed corner of the stadium. Some people are standing on their seats. There are young women sitting on their boyfriend's shoulders, shouting, waving. It's like a rock concert, but better. We're the ones making the noise, singing, screaming. We're the band. We're the music. The woman's friend beside her suddenly starts singing. The woman is still hesitating, looking around. She sees what I see – there's a guy in the corner with a small megaphone and he's shouting into it. He's the capo, leading us on. He's bare-chested, sweat pouring down his skinny, white rib cage. There are always three full plastic glasses of beer beside him. Every now and then he drinks one, in a single gulp. When it's gone, another one appears, an unseen hand placing it there. Now he takes a breath and shouts into the megaphone, "Again!" And then he starts, we all start, even the woman who hesitated, starts bellowing:
"Oh the Yankees picked a fight in 1812
Oh the Yankees picked a fight in 1812
So we burned their f----n' White House to the ground
Yeah we burned their f----n' White House to the ground!"
On the field, Abby Wambach, the tall American striker, fierce-faced, the ball at her feet, is moving fast toward Canada's goalmouth. The noise from the crowd hits her. You can tell. The swear words reverberate. She is surely clueless about the War of 1812, utterly unaware that Canadians once burned the White House to the ground. And she's distracted, briefly. A whisper of a smile passes across that fierce face, for a fleeting second. She heard that. And in that second-long lapse in concentration, a 17-year-old kid, Kadeisha Buchanan, swipes the ball from her feet and heads up the field. Wambach looks vaguely rueful, her pocket picked by a kid. She glances at the crowd, the wall between her and us now broken by the mad chant, the surprise of the kid taking the ball from her and legging it away. Maybe her eyes meet jeering Canadian eyes. Maybe not. No matter. The crowd erupts in a cacophony of ridicule and jeering. No one has a clue what's being said, sung or screamed. The capo has collapsed in laughter. The woman who hesitated to sing and jeer is sitting down now, holding her sides, taking deep breaths, giggling. Then she stands, pulled upright by the crowd's collective gasp. Her friend points, and she looks. We all look. Christine Sinclair has the ball.
This drama is unfolding on a hot Sunday afternoon in June, in Toronto. It's what they call a friendly, an exhibition game. Canada's women's national team is playing the United States. But, friendly game my bum. It's a grudge match. A year before, in Canada's epic encounter with the United States at the Olympics, the narrative of women's soccer had been changed forever. It was not merely a great game. There are plenty of tense, pulsating, thrilling games in soccer. They take place the world over, week after week. It was one of the greatest games ever played.
Canada took the lead, on a goal by Sinclair, and held it. The United States equalized. The pace of the game was remarkable – end-to-end attacking, surging movement forward, frantic defending, near misses in the goalmouths and heroic resilience. Canada took the lead again, on a second goal from Sinclair. The United States equalized. Again Canada took the lead, and again it was Sinclair. With 17 minutes remaining Canada had a hard grip on the game, the United States looking desperate. The atmosphere in the stadium - Old Trafford in Manchester, home of Manchester United and storied place of glorious soccer through decades - was fevered. Then it happened – the referee, Norwegian Christina Pedersen, perhaps spooked by the pace and intensity, perhaps tired of some American players' complaints, penalized Canadian goalkeeper Erin McLeod for taking a few seconds too long in holding the ball.
No one had ever seen such a call. No one.
In the pandemonium and bewilderment that followed, the Americans were awarded a free-kick inside the Canadian penalty area. The ball, kicked low by Megan Rapinoe struck a Canadian player on the hand, as it inevitably would in the packed space. The referee awarded a penalty for that. Wambach stepped up and coolly scored. The game was tied 3-3. And on it went, minute after excruciating minute into extra-time. It was a game to shred nerves. Logic was lost in the intensity, the confusion over the referee's decisions, the ceaseless flow back and forth of the players, running now on fatigued legs but majestic in their desire to score again, to win this baffling, spellbinding game.
In the end, in the final minute allowable, the Americans scored. It ended 4-3 and the Canadians collapsed on the field, heart scalded, bereft.
The result, though, was more than a statistic in women's soccer, goals scored for and against. It reverberated and echoed and everyone present and the tens of millions watching on TV in Canada, the U.S. and Europe, felt it. Never mind the bizarre refereeing decision and the bitterness that came with a sullied defeat for Canada. That game countered every argument against the women's game – it is slow, boring, less intense, and explosive than the men's game. This was fabulously dramatic, skilled soccer and anyone who watched, male or female, in the soccer-following commonality of the world, and beyond that to casual viewers of the Olympics, knew it.
Almost a year later, what's happening in Toronto is less intense, but significant - more about the spectators than the two teams on the field. Way more. There is little meaning in the result, but there is everything to be extrapolated from the event. In the sold-out stadium of 22,000 people the intensity is visceral. It's bitter, bittersweet, a brutal humiliation for Canada, losing in the end 3-0, sure, but this is an event of enormous importance. An occasion to savour, as in thousands of engaged, furious girls and young women in a packed stadium aiming adoration at professional Canadian women athletes and aiming abuse at their opponents. It is raw. A tough loss, nothing here to celebrate, technically, but it is utterly a crucible of fabulous emotion and a pointer to the future. The woman who hesitated to sing and shout and bellow the absurd obscenities, is a representative figure, an illustration. I'm thinking that her life, her relationship with sport, has been changed forever.
Before the game began, with the introduction of the players, euphoria was discharged from the crowd. A heady kind of bliss. The Canadian women players grinned, waved, and looked a bit startled by the fervour. A section of the crowd roared, "We loooooooooooooove you!" The men in the hardcore Toronto FC supporters' section took it up too. "We love you! We love you!" over and over. And there is genuine warmth, an appreciation of what was achieved. After the strange epic game against the U.S., the team faced France and the winner would receive the Bronze medal at the Olympics. The Canadians were ragged, sluggish after the brutal loss to the Americans. A Gold medal had been on their horizon and then snatched away in confounding circumstances. Still, they tried. Sinclair led by example again. A vague chance at a goal here and there, but then it was frantic defending as France assumed absolute control. For the longest time, the Canadian women looked liked tourists visiting some cultivated soccer world they were unfamiliar with, and yet they were redoubtable. Not unfazed, but fearless. A minute from the end, in some mad scramble on a rare Canadian foray toward the French goal, the ball fell to the feet of Diana Matheson, the tiny, dauntless defender. What she was doing there, in front of the French goal, is unknowable. She kicked it. She scored. And she reeled way, a mad grin on her beaming, exultant face. It was the best moment of the Olympics, that smile – all merry eyes and a laughing heart to certify this daft, snatched victory and an Olympic medal. It was when Matheson walked onto the field in Toronto and waved, that the boys and men chanted, "We love you! We love you!" Proper respect for the goal and the delight she took in it.
Soccer isn't our game, hockey is. And yet what the world cares about is soccer. And in soccer, it's the Canadian women that matter. It's ultra-kind to say that the Canadian Men's national team is in transition, on a long road to possible World Cup qualification sometime in the distant future. It would be accurate to say they're hopeless. But the women's team – they're formidable, feared and successful. Maybe not on this Sunday, and so what – they're adored. The full narrative of women's soccer is not yet written. It's still evolving, and that's makes it fascinating, frustrating and compelling. Some soccer supporters, male and female, sense where it's going. The media doesn't. Advertisers and other commercial partners don't. It's elusory and yet there, within reach.
Here's a possibility – Women's soccer offers the opportunity of a revolution in women's team sports. Everything that bedevils women's pro sports – the lack of media and audience attention, the perception of the athletes as eye-candy, the absence of career prospects, the dearth of role models – will be lessened if women's soccer's flourishes as it seems destined to. Most members of this Canadian team play in the fledgling National Women's Soccer League in the U.S., many have played for club teams in Europe. They are having careers as professional soccer players – a different experience from university players who turn up every few years for the World Cup or the Olympics. Vastly different from the experience of individual female athletes training and preparing in lonely isolation for the next Olympics, the next event that might lead to the Olympics, inching slowly toward solo achievement, hoping for recognition and the windfall of an endorsement or sponsorship to make it all seem worthwhile.
The two most powerful soccer bodies in the world, FIFA and UEFA, are heavily invested in growing the women's game at every level. There is every chance that women's game will grow organically, away from the shadow of the men's game, away from being a niche game, and become a glorious sport unto itself, universal and unfettered by old perceptions. It's what is already happening on this day – an outpouring of enthusiasm that's a retort to those who follow the men's game and find the women's game a diminished version. How momentous it is to see so many male diehard Toronto FC fans in the stadium, shouting themselves hoarse in support. They know it, they intuit it - the recent history of the Canadian women's team is already a winding, bizarre story, and intertwined with the evolving narrative of the women's game, it is the future.
Canada qualified for the Women's World Cup in Germany in 2011 and entered the tournament heavily hyped at home as potential world champions. The over-expectation happened largely because nobody was paying much attention to the team or to women's soccer in Europe and Asia. The Canadian team was revealed to be tactically naïve and unsophisticated, losing all three of its games.
Japan was the shock winner of the tournament, beating the USA in the final. France, a semi-finalist, emerged as a world power. A new world became visible then. The triumphalism of American athleticism, its formidable discipline and the resource of its vast pool of players, all made redundant.
As many as 10 countries at that World Cup were capable of being finalists. The French were immensely sophisticated in tactics, keenly aware of the space on the field, and ownership of it. Their quicksilver movement, anchored in a midfield as blithely fluid as any led by Zinedine Zidane, was all about the pleasure of the game, the caress, the stroke and orchestral movement of the team.
Japan, meanwhile, had acquired a strange and maddeningly simple urbanity. Its players kept possession and out-thought their opposition.
In Berlin, 74,000 packed the Olympic stadium for the opening game. The closing game in the smaller Frankfurt stadium had a sold-out attendance of 48,000. In Berlin they danced in the streets before the opening game. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, soccer fanatic and most powerful politician in Europe, sat in the stadium and beamed. Her game, and women playing it with imposing skill and tenacity.
The key Canadian story was Christine Sinclair's broken nose in the opening game, a loss to Germany. Sinclair put on a protective masks. It looked like a gladiator's mask and she played on in the next games. The mass sports media latched on to this as seriously consequential - typically highlighting those women players who exhibit the most male characteristics of macho grit. Sinclair was hailed as a warrior. The media angle was hokey and an injustice to a renowned soccer player of sublime skill and uncanny instinct.
The "warrior" theme was borrowed lazily from hockey. Warriors aren't a big part of soccer. The great male players – Zidane, Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi – aren't brutes or battering rams. It's athleticism, skill, grace and canniness that matter.
What matters too is the connection between the players and the supporters and observers in the stadium. In the women's game, the players and those in the seats or standing, cheering, jeering, amount to one mass of emotional energy. Each important game is more than a sporting occasion, or spectacle. It's a mass movement rolling forward. In the stadium, as happened on that sunny Sunday in Toronto, the atmosphere blurs the lines of gender and class. It is long a truism about soccer that the stadium is place to forge change, to sometimes say or bray aloud the unsayable. In many places soccer stadiums are the only venues aside from a church or mosque where crowds congregate without fear of riot police or soldiers. Soccer is played on the field but, more crucially; it is small acts of revolution that play out in the stands.
It is also a truism that any team sport is a sort of ritual combat onto which are projected complex rivalries between towns, tribes and nations. But in soccer the complexity is even richer. It is hard for a fan of North American professional sports to grasp, but in most countries soccer clubs are not franchises owned by faceless corporations who might move the team and abandon the stadium in the right business circumstance. Clubs are rooted in small neighbourhood organizations going back decades or longer. The fans have an authentic stake in the club. They are club members, owners and not merely followers. There are certain ills that bedevil men's professional soccer – the subtle corruption, the match-fixing in some countries, the preying of wealthy European teams on small impoverished clubs in small countries – but away from all that soccer can be distilled to what is does as a social function. It is a venue and outlet for raw identity politics. Sometimes joyous, sometimes painful. And that is precisely what is happening in the women game – the players and fan are taking a part-ownership of the game, in the big stadiums, at the tournaments and on playing fields all over the world.
The rules of soccer are simple and are the same for men and women. The men's professional game has grown grotesque, as some see it. The vast amounts money involved, the remoteness of the star players from supporters, the playacting of coaches and corporations, the simulation of injury, the bloated excess of what seems less a sport than a vast, cynical entertainment enterprise. The women's game can rescue the world's favourite game from all of that. The purity of the women's game is of one its great strengths, a potential source of glory. In the years that I've followed soccer across continents, on nights of ecstatic revelry in Europe, on days of gloom and hard effort in Canada and the U.S., the ball turning in the sun and rain, I have always kept one phrase in my heart. It appears inevitably wherever Ireland plays, written plainly on a giant banner, hoisted as the contest begins: "It's Only A Game." And it's true, but it always needs to be hoisted because the game can be much more. It can halt a war or ignite a riot and change history. In the cauldron of a stadium on a summer afternoon, at intermittent points in a lifetime, you can sense it, the shape of a game reshaping lives.
The crowd fell head over heels for this game in Toronto between Canada and the U.S.A, and left wanting more. There isn't an iota of doubt about the passion unleashed. Soccer is a game of spare, uncomplicated grace. A small player can beat a bigger player. A small country can defeat a much larger country. The cadence and pulse of it is universal, played the world over. In playing, in attending, the players and the fans are connected to a broader world, a vast place of freedom to run, kick, jump, follow the roll of the ball as the ball leads everyone forward.
I've followed soccer, played it and written about it from countless stadiums and places on four continents. The love affair began in a small town in Ireland when playing soccer was an act of rebellion, a foreign game in a deeply nationalist culture. All I've ever sought is regaining the shock and pleasure of the first encounter with it, the experience that felt like a glancing kiss. Soccer games, tournaments, the witnessing of victories and defeats have been beacons, emblems and crossroads in my life. The passion for the game and all it represents has ebbed and flowed, as all love affairs do. Every now and then I can feel the stirring of the old attraction and then it begins to seethe. I can feel it now. It is, on the day of the game in Toronto, two years to the Women's World Cup in Canada. The biggest ever, with 24 teams from countries around the world competing. It's a journey worth taking, this adventure with the women who are turning the world's game into something that transcends sport and has the texture and momentum of a revolution.
Two: Off the field: Poise, promise and meaning
Three months later, on a chill September morning at eight a.m. I'm sitting at the back of a trendy restaurant in downtown Toronto. I'm not supposed to be here. Four members of the Canadian women's team, Christine Sinclair, Diana Matheson, Rhian Wilkinson and Karina LeBlanc, are speakers at a breakfast for women business leaders. It's a small, women-only event. But I finagled permission to sit in, and I'm allowed to hang around at the back, watch and listen. The players hover somewhere in the corner, seeming not so much aloof as shy in this chic place where powerful, sophisticated women executives are gathering. One of the organizers tells me that Sinclair and Matheson will be brought over to meet me. I stand up, trying not to seem awed.
Sinclair has a lone wolf aura about her. She seems wary, but far from haughty. Down-to-earth, and a bit cautious, as if worried that something unnecessarily complicated is about to unfold. She looks slight of frame, but there's an air of relentless inner strength about her. Matheson smiles all the time, puckish in her demeanour. There ensues a few minutes of mindless chat about the event, the weather outside. I'm not sure they know I'm a journalist, a writer about soccer. I try to explain, without it being awkward. Sinclair stares at me evenly and then smiles. "Oh, we know who you are," she says, and glances down at Matheson who laughs and says "Yeah. We know." It's safe then to talk about what matters. I offer congratulations to Sinclair on her season with the Portland Thorns and on winning the first ever championship in the National Women's Soccer League. And to Matheson on her season with the Washington Spirit.
In response to this compliment, Sinclair is modest but proud. A really good season, and enjoyable, she explains. Achievements made, efforts rewarded, a fine team spirit involved. But, more than that, she seems anxious to emphasize that each game played for the fledgling Thorns was watched by thousands of people in the stadium. "There were about 16,000 fans at every home game," she says. Everything's changed." This is something that matters deeply to her, it's clear. There are young women and young men who follow her team with vehemence, she wants it noted. In her time as player, women's soccer has ceased to be a marginalized, niche game. It's a world unto itself, with star players, fanatical fans and that is not going to diminish. Technology and social media have fuelled the women's game. Web sites connect fans and players, and knowledge is shared, enthusiasms promoted. Every time the U.S women's team plays, it's the number-one trending topic on Twitter for hours.
While I'm listening to Sinclair an insight dawns on me. The support for and interest in women's soccer is a Generation Y/Millennial phenomenon. That generation, group-oriented, preferring egalitarianism to tough, individualistic leadership, is drawn to the women's game as an expression of newness, a rejection of traditional macho sensibility, an appreciation of openness and transparency that is, in itself, a repudiation of the old hierarchies of games and professional sports. Millennials identify with the women game as theirs, not their parent's passion. They value teamwork and seek the input and affirmation of others, something that is inherent in the women's game. They see its rise and the pleasures of it as emblematic of gender and generational change. Their interest in individual Extreme sporting events such skateboarding and snow boarding, is established. Women's soccer is their team sport. To them it's both gender rebellion and innovation.
We talk about Toronto FC and speculate about why the team fails so often. Matheson makes wisecracks. Then she and Sinclair suggest the names of players who might be brought in to save the team. This is a topic Sinclair likes. She lives and breathes soccer. A good, talk-the-hell out of soccer conversation relaxes her, I suspect, and some of the shyness diminishes. Matheson describes their recent trip to Newfoundland where several of the players worked at a Strive For Excellence training camp with young local girls. "It was cold, it was wet," she says. "We brought the wrong clothes," she says, rolling her eyes. "And we're still teaching the kids at ten o'clock a night when it's dark, almost freezing. But those little girls, they worked so hard and they look up to us. None of the discomfort matters when you see their faces." Then the Matheson and the other players have to sit on a stage and talk to the women business executives.
It is a curious but powerful story they tell. They are motivational speakers here and rely on autobiographical anecdotes to enlighten and inspire. They are self-deprecating and want it known they're not superstars and definitely lack the trapping of sports superstardom. They live out of dufflebags, have little money for cool clothes or other luxuries; the money they earn is small, the system that rewards them is messy and complicated. They four are articulate, good storytellers. Matheson, for all her humour, comes across as a serious, clear-eyed, twentysomething. She has an economics degree from Princeton. She wonders about earning a living beyond the game, getting insured, having some sort of pension. She says all the players need advice about such simple things. But they do work as a team, even talking. They finish each other's sentences. All four are university educated, they rarely struggle to articulate, and they're unflappable.
What they are doing is motivational speaking and intuitively designed and shaped for women. The lessons they have to deliver are about ongoing, never-ending encouragement and development to other women. Men, especially star male athletes, tend to tell stories of battles won. These women begin by noting that none of them was noticed as an outstanding player early in their playing careers. They weren't picked first, so they learned the values of patience, hard work and, when they earned a place on the national team, they learned to value the camaraderie. It matters to them that a new, younger player is eased into the team, and nourished, as opposed to sharply tested. It matters that young players are ambitious but realistic, willing to be coached, able to recover from loss without pointless rage or disappointment. They welcome challenge but are determined to be honest about the quality of their opposition. In a way, it occurs to me, they are instinctively delivering the Lean In message that Sheryl Sandberg, the Facebook executive, has fashioned to encourage women in business leadership. These soccer players encourage women to take both risks and responsibility. They tell their audience to be fully aware of the possibility of failure and to understand that analyzing a setback provides the potential for a much higher payoff, not only in victory, but also in life experience.
Rhian Wilkinson has a story about being obliged to stay inside at school, in the gym, while boys were allowed outside to play soccer. The weather was cold and wet, so the boys were considered tough enough to play outside, but not her. Se laughs at it, more rueful than resentful. She doesn't say this incident inspired her. She says those days are over. Wilkinson also explains an oddity in her preparation for games. She suffers from stagefright, sometimes. She's fine when she takes to the field. It is the moments before that can bring panic. In the locker room, while others stretch their bodies, preen and shout aloud to pump themselves up for the encounter, Wilkinson reads a book. Until she has to stand and walk onto the field, she's lost in a novel or short story. That's fine with the coach and the other players.
Karina LeBlanc explains that she values the opportunity to stop a penalty kick. It invigorates her, the blunt challenge of facing a single player with the ball, determined to score. This is a telling confession. Traditionally in soccer the moment of the game being distilled to the goalkeeper facing the penalty kick in seen as the game refined to a moment of dread. That moment, the goalkeeper's angst, the weight of expectation, is the game's existential crisis. LeBlanc, it seems, is utterly unaware of this. Christine Sinclair grins as LeBlanc talks about the penalty kicks. As the discussion unfolded, Sinclair became quiet. The confessional talk isn't her forte. She seems removed, listening and watching. And this is what great strikers do in the field. They assess, consider the ground around them, the position and movement of other players, and then dart into the scoring position. In her drifting into solitude on this panel, one can sense the élan and poise she brings to her role as a player, the gifted loner, always appraising.
Three: The game and its artistic soul
A couple of weeks after that breakfast, I'm in a small art gallery on the east side of Toronto's downtown. I'm staring at the art hung on the walls. The exhibition is of work by Erin McLeod, the Canadian goalkeeper whose remarkable strength of character and physical agility kept France at bay in that Bronze medal game at the Olympics. I had no idea that Erin Katrina McLeod of St. Albert, Alberta, and one of two goalkeepers in the national women's team, was an artist. Swapping places with LeBlanc in the job of goalkeeper, McLeod gained a reputation for physical fierceness combined with playful eccentricity. She had famously reshaped and re-coloured her hair multiple times during tournaments. It seems this might have been less the athlete's preparation and more an expression of a bohemian artist's soul.
There are pencil drawings and sharply angular portraits of people glimpsed on the street. A canvass called How to Love comprises red flower petals artfully flung on a piece of ancient birchwood. There is a pensive quality to all of it, the sense of someone looking playfully at the world, and then restraining the playfulness to contemplate beauty and the delicacy of the emotions that beauty inspires. McLeod is no hobbyist; she's a serious artist. Almost all the works in the exhibition have been sold. In a Note from the Artist, McLeod writes, "Art calms me, helps me focus, and lets me play in a completely different way."
For reasons I cannot explain, while staring at the artwork, a set of memories unnerve me. When I was boy in Ireland, we played soccer almost every evening and on weekend afternoons from spring until autumn. Street against street, gang against gang. The street games were stormy, fast and raucous. Sometimes, if the other street had more players, girls played on our team. We didn't mind, if they were good, hard players. I remember a girl named Patricia, broad-shouldered, blonde and a gifted defender. She bossed the players round her, waved her arms and commanded the space behind the strikers. She terrified the opposition and laughed at them. Then, one day, she stopped turning up to play with us. She told someone who passed it on to us that her mother told her she had to stop playing with us. And we missed her, even if we couldn't or wouldn't say it. At times, when I think of those days, I wonder if Patricia ever played again, and was able to laugh with the same pleasure, on summer nights, the ball at her feet, the wind in her hair, the picture of strength and pride.
As I leave the gallery, some of McLeod's images stay in my mind, especially a blood-red flower bursting wildly into bloom. I'm walking down the street and thinking I want to be immersed, I must keep going on this journey into the women's game, fully into the speed, power and beauty of movement and assurance that it is, and all that it signifies.