I Can’t Believe I’m Writing About Soccer

Photo: Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

By Steve Farnham, Associate Editor, AllHabs.net

LONGUEUIL, QC. — From coast-to-coast across Canada today, I don’t believe any Canadian watching the 2012 London Olympic’s closing ceremonies could help but to smile as together, we all watched Christine Sinclair enter the stadium proudly hoisting the Canadian flag.

Photo: Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Despite the beliefs of some (myself included) that Rosie MacLennan, Canada’s sole gold medalist in these Olympics should have been Canada’s flag bearer for these closing ceremonies, to watch Sinclair mouth wide-open and eyes sparkling as she marched in with the other flag bearers is a memory that will stay with me for a long time, and hopefully, it’s also the case for many young men and women across the country.

If you would have asked me one year ago whether I would write an article on soccer, I would have laughed at you, mocked you, called soccer a boring sport, and gone on to tell you that I would have rather shoved a rusty screwdriver into my right eye while jabbing a knife into my left ear, than watch the sport let alone write about it. Incredible how my view towards soccer has changed over the past year.

There were many contributing factors that made me make a 180 degree turn on Soccer. My friend Mike played a huge role — he currently coaches at the U16 level soccer on the south shore and is a season ticket-holder for the Montreal Impact in Major League Soccer (MLS). The fact that the Impact made the jump from the United Soccer League (USL) to MLS also made it a little more interesting to follow the sport, without forgetting how Montreal was able to get the likes of home-grown Patrice Bernier to come play out of Europe, who I had the honor of briefly playing hockey with at the Bantam AA level when we were both younger. That’s right, Bernier was a solid defenceman at the time, and I was frequently called up from my BB level team to sit on the bench for his goalie, who’d often get suspended for beating the crap out of opposing players.

The first time I was dragged out to Saputo Stadium, home of the Impact and my first experience in an outdoor stadium, I quickly fell in love. I never imagined you could have such great ambiance within an outdoor stadium, and much of this ambiance was initiated by the Impact’s diehard fans (Ultras), who are constantly out in great numbers, vibrating the stadium with their numerous chants and creating smoke hazards with their flares, but nobody really minds. Oh my god, I like soccer.

This brings us back to Sinclair and the Canadian women’s soccer team, who have made this entire country go through a boatload of emotions these past few days.

This was the team’s second Olympics, having qualified for the first time back in 2008. They had reached the quarterfinals, only to be knocked out by the heavily favored Americans and finished eighth overall. The Canadian soccer program was showing signs of encouragement.

In 2010, the team won the CONCACAF Women’s World Cup qualifier, by defeating the Mexican team and finishing the tournament with a perfect record of five wins in as many games. This win allowed them to qualify for the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Germany. Unfortunately however, the team ended up in a difficult group having to face Germany, France and Nigeria. The Canadians lost their three matches and were eliminated from the tournament. This was a devastating blow to the soccer team and program, which cost Carolina Morace her job, and left players like Sinclair feeling as she put in her own words, “A broken soccer player.”

To replace Morace, in came John Herdman, who had coached the New Zealand women’s soccer team, and not only did he get the team back on track, but he helped the women raise their game to a whole new level and capture the bronze medal as these Olympics.

I’d like to give a special thanks to my soccer teammates because without them none of this would have been possible.” – Christine Sinclair

Of course, we would have all liked to have seen the Canadians compete against Japan for the gold medal. Many of us are still left with a bitter feeling from the match against the Americans, where a certain Norwegian referee decided she was going to leave her mark on the game, but I think we should spend our energy on what they accomplished, rather than dwell on what could have been.

The match against France for the bronze medal sure wasn’t pretty. Just like the Americans had done to them in the previous game, the Canadians took the lead in extra time, with Matheson delivering a loose ball to the back of the net with only seconds remaining in the game. The Canadians had been badly outplayed for the entire game, converting their game-winning goal on what was only their fourth shot of the game, France having ended the game with 25 themselves. None-the-less, shots don’t win games, goals do and Canada ran away with the bronze, and in the process captured the hearts of so many Canadians.

Sinclair shared her thoughts on how she expected the bronze medal game to go versus what it actually ended up being. “We thought that the emotions of the bronze medal game would take us through it, but I think most of us realized maybe half-way through the first half that we were absolutely gassed. A lot of credit has to go to our staff, to all the hard work we did in Vancouver, because without that I don’t think Dee [Matheson] would have been inside the 18-yard box with a chance at the end. We put all that hard work in to try to defend with our lives and suffer through those last 45 minutes and try to create that one chance.”

She also added, “There’s been a group of us who have been on this team for some time who have experienced the highs and lows of international soccer and nothing compares to this. I don’t think any of us at the end of last year’s World Cup would have thought this is possible. This is for my teammates that went through the bad days with me 10 or 12 years ago. This medal’s for them.”

Coach Herdman had nothing but great things to say after the game about his team captain and star, Christine Sinclair. “It’s great to see Christine smiling, we have a picture in my office at home of Christine after the last World Cup with her head in her hands and the anger on her face and I said to the girls: This has been my motivation. I’ll never see a player of that quality in that state after a tournament. Christine’s had the quote that’s kind of inspired us: you can’t be great until you achieve great things, and getting a medal today was that great thing.”

This is about something bigger,” … “I’ve had parents coming up to me and saying they want to sign up their little girls for soccer because of what our team did. To me that’s what this is all about.” – Christine Sinclair

Photo: Toru Hanai/Reuters