Maybe it’s because I’m Canadian. Maybe it’s because I love soccer. Because I’m a broadcaster? I guess when I think about it now, it’s all of the above.
I’ve seen a lot of highs and lows in the world of sports, but I have never been so emotionally invested or impacted by a game or series of games as I was by the Canadian Women’s National Soccer Team at London 2012. You might think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. They turned me into a blubbery mess on more than one occasion.
Rewind to last summer. The team went winless in Germany at the 2011 Women’s World Cup. The results shocked many who thought the squad was ready to take the next step on the world stage.
Now fast forward to January 2012: A new coach and Olympic qualifications on their home turf. The team oozed with a sort of understated confidence. The long ball game they previously employed was gone. Instead, the midfield and forwards were working together with crisp passes and a sense of creativity I had never seen before with this squad.
It was also at this time the chemistry really started to show between forwards Christine Sinclair and Melissa Tancredi. If you listen to the broadcasts of those qualification games, all you hear is “Sinclair finds Tancredi. What a goal!” or “Tancredi with an amazing pass to Sinclair and it’s in the back of the net!” They trusted one another and had little trouble getting the ball to each other. Obviously, the connection was always there, but something was different in Vancouver. They had matured and the whole team had a sense of “we can do this.”
The win against Mexico that sealed their ticket to the Olympics proved they were going places, literally and figuratively. The loud, boisterous, Canadian fans knew it and soon the world would too. London was calling.
The Olympics were the culmination of years of hard work and for some, it marked more than a decade of international play. The 2002 U-19 Women’s World Cup featured a number of players we are seeing in their primes today. Not just Sinclair, but Erin McLeod, Brittany Timko, Candace Chapman, Melanie Booth and Carmelina Moscato. During that tournament, Sinclair potted 10 goals to win the Golden Boot. She also claimed the Golden Ball Award. McLeod was named to the tournament’s all-star team along with Chapman, Sinclair and Moscato. It was obvious the country had a strong generation of female footballers coming through the ranks.
As years went by, they evened out their squad with a number of key players. Tancredi, for example, reminds me of a typical power-forward in hockey. She has no fear. She’s willing to put her body on the line to benefit the team, while having the skill and finesse to leave the opposition confused as to what just hit them. The midfield? Solid. Sophie Schmidt, Desiree Scott, Diana Matheson, Kaylyn Kyle and Kelly Parker. Don’t forget about a one-two punch in net with veterans McLeod and Karina LeBlanc and a steady, dependable back line with the likes of Moscato, Emily Zurrer, Rhian Wilkinson, Lauren Sesselmann, Chelsea Stewart, Marie-Eve Nault and Robyn Gayle.
There’s no point rehashing what happened in the semi-final between Canada and USA. It’ll be debated for years to come. However, you cannot deny the kind of impact it had on Canadians. It made them care because they saw how much the girls care. Call it Canadian nature or whatever, but people who weren’t even soccer fans were talking about that match. Canadians from B.C. to Nova Scotia were finally understanding how special this team is and how the world’s best player is a soft-spoken, shy girl from Burnaby, who has been carrying the national team on her back for most of her life.
I’ll still never forget how I felt after that semi-final: gutted. It was like someone had ripped out my heart, threw it on the floor and then proceeded to do the Macarena all over it. The ride home on the media bus was one of complete silence. I sat on the top level of that double-decker in the front seat like a zombie. I closed my eyes, leaned my head back and thought about the last 10 years of women’s soccer in Canada and how far it had come. I thought about the dressing room at that very moment and how the veteran players must have been feeling. Years of blood, sweat and tears. The sacrifices made by their parents and other loved ones. You can’t deny the squad left absolutely everything they had on the pitch.
My phone was filling up with text messages and I was getting tweets like crazy that night. Everyone back home wanted to know the same thing: “Why?”. I had no answer for any of them. And that’s when it happened – the “a-ha moment” – a phrase now in the dictionary thanks to Oprah Winfrey. I said to myself, “this is what it is all about.” Sports bring people together. Broadcasters get out the message and that night, they united a country. This story brought together Canada.
As the girls prepared for the bronze medal match against France, I’m sure everyone wondered if they had anything left in the tank. As the half drew to a close, it was obvious the girls were physically and emotional drained. Truly though, can you blame them? The last 48 hours had probably been very surreal to each and every person on that team, from the players to the coaching staff. The reality is that many of these players are in the prime of their careers: Sinclair, Tancredi, McLeod, Moscato. All of them are 28-31 years old and they may want other things in life in the next few years. It must have dawned on them that the same team might not be together when Canada hosts the 2015 Women’s World Cup and that added to the raw emotional magnitude of everything.
Coventry Stadium itself was quiet that day. You could almost hear a pin drop expect for John Herdman: “Come on girls. Let’s move it up!” and most poignantly “Christine, I need to you to take it to another level.” At the 90 minute mark, the stats told the story: 25 shots for France. 3 for Canada. McLeod kept them in the game, despite a scary moment when she went down after punching out a ball. And how about Scott’s goal line save? I won’t forget the slow-motion replay of her keeping the ball out with her right leg and her exhale of relief afterward.
Herdman used up all of his subs and the girls just needed one break. They got it during injury time. When Matheson put that ball in, celebrated and kissed the Canadian crest on her jersey, all of Canada cried. I cried. They had done it. And how about the image of Sinclair on her knees, arms raised, looking to the sky with tears streaming down her face? That’s all you needed to see. Bronze around their necks. Gold in their hearts and in the hearts of all Canadians (The Vancouver Southsiders said it nicely….)
I looked at the people around me when Matheson scored. I was surrounded by international broadcasters with whom I had really connected with over four weeks in London during my freelance stint. They clapped and said “Congratulations Sandra. Congrats Canada.” I’ll never forget that moment for the rest of my life. It’s like every single Canadian was on the pitch with the girls at that very moment.
What an emotional rollercoaster. Forget the broadcasting though. I’ve been playing soccer for more than half of my life and yet it took what happened in London for me to truly appreciate my teammates. Yes, I now play for a division four women’s team and perhaps it’s not the nicest soccer to watch, but dammit, we are a family. You form a bond with these girls you probably don’t realize is there until it’s gone. That’s what this wonderful Canadian team taught me.
Thank you, girls. Thank you.
COC Photo: Mike Ridewood – Olympic.ca