As the penalty shootout between Canada and Sweden wound on, Christine Sinclair cycled through all the emotions like she was doing a mime routine.
She’d been subbed off in the 86th minute. She’d put in her shift and left the game tied 1-1. It was her move into the box that had earned a penalty in regulation and Canada’s only score.
Now that it was down to sudden death, she stood on the sidelines cradling another redoubtable, Desiree Scott. Those two are the last playing link to the defining disappointment of London 2012.
When Jessie Fleming scored to start it, Sinclair pumped her fists. When the next three Canadian shooters missed, she variously slumped, put her hands on her knees, stared at the sky, tried not watching, tried not not watching, put her hands on her knees some more and went for a little walk.
Sweden could have sealed it off with their fifth kick and missed. Sinclair was a mess and then suddenly not a mess. That left it all down to Julia Grosso.
Grosso, 20, was born four months after Sinclair scored her first international goal. How’s that for time being a round circle?
Sinclair doesn’t move like she used to, but she was the first one out on the field. Once the celebrating was done, she lay there for a long time.
Not a lot of people get to relive history and do it right the second time around. Sinclair has. She has finally won the gold medal fate and a rattled referee robbed her of two Olympics ago.
Sinclair joined the Canadian senior national team in 2000. Back then, dinosaurs roamed the Earth and women’s soccer was still a poor facsimile of what it’s become.
Shorn of support and interest, teams had two primary tactics – kick the ball as far as you can and then knock down anyone in between you and it. Soccer is tougher than people give it credit for, but women’s soccer was seriously tough.
This was the Australian way, the Scandinavian way and the Canadian way. Few other countries in the world – especially the traditional homes of the game – gave a damn.
Take for instance, Brazil. It is the romantic cradle of soccer. After they lost to Canada in the bronze medal match at Rio 2016, their coach devoted most of his remarks to begging for money and support. He had reasonable fears that the loss would be used to dismantle a few small gains in the women’s program.
That’s how it worked, and in many ways still works, in international women’s soccer. A few countries with progressive politics and money to burn taking on a lot of countries with neither.
Then there’s the United States.
Spurred by hosting the 1999 Women’s World Cup, the Americans brought a new philosophy to soccer – they were going to try. Not push out a couple of unusually athletic people and hope for the best, but build a program around them. Teach kids from a young age. Create a professional league so that they had something to do with themselves in the four years between Olympics.
The World Cup and its popularity in the U.S. – captured most famously in a pumped-up, shirt-off jubilation picture of Brandi Chastain – catapulted America to the top of the ladder.
In fact, the U.S. women’s team was off the ladder, onto the roof and about to get into a helicopter. For years, they were so far above the competition in terms of across-the-board quality, you couldn’t really call it a competition.
The other traditional ‘powers’ have spent those 20 years in a scramble to get their games out of the 20th century.
Europe and its concentration of soccer-coaching ability committed to the fight a few years ago. South American and Africa began to care. Asia got serious. Not long ago, it wasn’t really a world game, but it is now.
And then there’s Canada.
Yes, we spend a good amount of money on things. And sure, we use the most up-to-date training methods. And absolutely, our top players are now stars for the biggest clubs in the world.
But standing underneath all that, like Atlas, is Sinclair.
She created the modern Canadian women’s soccer set-up. Not logistically. As far as I know, she isn’t much good at lobbying and fundraising. But imaginatively.
She was Canada’s first truly world-class player. She played like the best Americans, with style and wit. She took what Canada already had – a blunt, fighting spirit – and sharpened it into something formidable.
She’s 38 now, and still playing forward. There is no such thing as a 38-year-old soccer forward. Pele retired from international play when he was 30. Maradona was 34. But, in fairness, Sinclair has more goals than either of them, so maybe they don’t completely measure up as comparison points.
What Sinclair does now is provide a brain-centre on the field. She’s a coach in shorts. You can see her pulling the formation this way and that without needing to say anything. Her teammates see where she’s drifting and adapt around her.
Canada’s been good for a while. But in Tokyo, for the first time, they looked complete. Like they weren’t all out there making it up as they went along, however much fun that sometimes is to watch.
The result of that was the real victory here – the semi-final against the Americans.
Afterward, the biggest media star on that team, Megan Rapinoe, said, “Obviously, you never want to lose to Canada.”
Rapinoe didn’t seem too bothered by the upset. She moved through the mixed zone interrupting interviews to give her opponents bear hugs. And why should she? She’s old (36). Her legacy is secure. She wasn’t even a starter in the game. This American disaster will not stick to her.
But it will stick to Sinclair.
Nine years ago in London, she had a performance for the ages. Three goals on three attempts. Every one of them gave Canada the lead. Each was better than the last. There are strikers they’ve built statues of who would give a couple of fingers to have had a game like that on a stage as big as the Olympics.
In a perfect world, that would be Sinclair’s Chastain moment.
Instead, it’s Tokyo. She scored one goal here in six games. She missed a penalty. She was first in hearts and fourth or fifth on the depth chart.
But over 20 years, she created the conditions that made this – the only gold ever won by a Canadian team that doesn’t play hockey – possible. Maybe now she can rest.
The Globe and Mail, August 6, 2021