EDMONTON, Alberta – GCanada had just been eliminated from the 2011 Women’s World Cup. Its captain, Christine Sinclair, sat on the turf, crying, angry, desolate. Her nose had been broken earlier in the tournament in Germany. Now, after a 4-0 rout by France in group play, her spirit felt broken as well.
“It was the lowest point in my soccer career,” Sinclair said. “The worst game I’d ever seen our team play.”
In the fallout, John Herdman was hired to coach the Canadian women. He placed a photo of the deflated Sinclair on the wall of his office.
“I never wanted that woman to feel that way again,” Herdman said.
A year later, at the London Olympics, Sinclair rallied her teammates after a disputed loss to the United States in the semifinals, and Canada won a bronze medal, its first major international prize.
On Saturday night in front of 53,058 embracing fans at Commonwealth Stadium, Sinclair scored on a penalty kick in the 92nd minute to give Canada a thrilling 1-0 victory over China to open the World Cup.
Sinclair now has 154 career goals, third on the career international list behind Abby Wambach (182) and Mia Hamm (158). Hope Solo, the American goalkeeper, called Sinclair “the best player in the world” last month.
The high expectations for Canada in the Cup are in no small part due to the presence of Sinclair, who has been a member of the national team since 2000, when she was a teenager. On June 12, she will turn 32. A country’s hopes and a team’s possibilities rest largely on her shoulders.
“I’m not 100 percent comfortable with it,” Sinclair said recently of being the face of the host nation, and the tournament, “but it’s something I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about.”
She is featured on a postage stamp commemorating the World Cup. And she is recognized almost everywhere she goes in Canada. It is a far cry, said Maeve Glass, 55, Canada’s equipment manager and a pioneering player, from the 1970s, when women began playing soccer anonymously in Vancouver, stuffing legal-size envelopes into their socks as makeshift shin guards.
This awakening has elevated Sinclair to a position that Hamm occupied in the United States. Sinclair is not considered a women’s soccer player but simply a soccer player. This is made especially evident when the Canadians train in Vancouver, which is next to Sinclair’s hometown, Burnaby, British Columbia.
The groups that come to train after us, you hear 14- and 15-year-old boys saying, “Yeah, there she is, there’s Sinclair right there,” Glass said. “Ten years ago, if you told me that, I would have gone, No.”
The challenge for Sinclair during this World Cup will be similar to one that Hamm faced at the 1999 tournament in the United States: a kind of tug of war in which Sinclair will be asked to promote her sport and maintain her reliability on the field while not being viewed as separate or apart by her teammates.
“Physically, emotionally, you’re always trying to make sure that you’re focused and ready for the game,” Hamm said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles.
As a girl, Sinclair said, she was not aware that Canada had a womenâs national soccer team. She wears No. 12 because it was the number of her favorite baseball player, Roberto Alomar, the Hall of Fame second baseman who at the time played for the Toronto Blue Jays.
Sinclair said she spent half the year playing baseball (second base, after Alomar) and half playing soccer from age 4. Her mother played, her father played, her older brother played. Two of her uncles, Bruce and Brian Gant, played for the Portland Timbers of the North American Soccer League.
“It was just something our family did,” Sinclair said.
She became a two-time N.C.A.A. champion at Portland, and with a degree in life science, Sinclair speaks with a kind of reticence that is often called humility but may also be the restraint demanded by scholarship. When she does speak her mind, people take notice, as happened after the 2012 Olympic semifinals against the United States.
It was a tense, engaging match during which Sinclair scored three times and the Norwegian referee made two disputed calls - one for time-wasting on Canada’s goalkeeper and another for a hand ball that led to a penalty goal by Wambach. The United States finally prevailed, 4-3, on a header by Alex Morgan in the 123rd minute, after which Sinclair said, “We feel cheated.”
She did not stop there, adding: âWe feel like we didnât lose, we feel like it was taken from us. Itâs a shame in a game like that that was so important, the ref decided the result before it started.â
The teams ended up staying on the same floor of the same hotel that night in Manchester, England, said Glass, the Canadian equipment manager.
“They wouldn’t even look at us,” Glass said of the Americans. â”They knew we got robbed.”
After the Olympics, Sinclair received a four-game suspension by FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, for “displaying unsporting behavior toward match officials.”
Yet what is most remembered - and cherished – by the Canadian team is what Sinclair said in the dressing room after the match at Old Trafford. Amid quiet sobbing, she told her teammates that she had never been prouder of them. And, using a certain curse word for emphasis, she added that the tournament was not over, saying, “We have a bronze medal to win.”
Glass said, “That, for this team, was an absolute turning point.”
Canada prevailed in the bronze-medal match 1-0 against the same French team that had routed Sinclair and her teammates at the 2011 World Cup - and Sinclair was chosen to carry the Canadian flag for the closing ceremony at the London Games.
She had always described her team as “little sisters” to the Americans, the four-time Olympic gold medalists and two-time World Cup champions. Now something seemed to have shifted in attitude.
“We’re not equal yet, but I think the gap is closing very quickly,” Sinclair said. “I think as a team we head into every game against the Americans knowing we can beat them. Weâve never felt that before. We have this confidence; we know if we play well we can beat any team in the world.”
With Herdman as coach, Canada has shored up its supporting cast and become more tactically sophisticated in its play. At 5 feet 9 ½ inches, Sinclair has developed a completeness, becoming a playmaker as well as a scorer, often drifting to the wing or dropping back into midfield.
She must speak up more if Canada is to succeed at this World Cup, Herdman said, getting her teammates involved, demanding of them and herself.
“Don’t walk off the pitch and go, ‘I never really got the ball today’,” Herdman said. “She’s got to accept that she can change games and she’s got to be prepared to demand the ball and change tactics to get on the ball.”
It is a role that Sinclair seems ready to accept, said Tobin Heath, the American midfielder and teammate of Sinclair’s with the Portland Thorns of the National Women’s Soccer League.
“She embraces that responsibility,” Heath said. “Seeing her play for her country, she ups her game to another level. And I think with the World Cup in Canada, you will see a special player playing at the highest level.”
Correction: June 8, 2015 An earlier version of this article misstated the surname of Christine Sinclair’s uncles who played for the Portland Timbers of the North American Soccer League. They are Bruce and Brian Gant, not Grant.
Source: Free News Headlines Sports Face of Soccer in Canada, on Field and on Stamps