John Herdman, the English-born coach responsible for the rebirth of Canada’s national women’s soccer team, has a motivational picture in his home office. It’s a photo of team captain Christine Sinclair after last June’s soccer World Cup. She has her head in her hands, and there’s anger and despair on her face.
He made himself a promise, when he came from the New Zealand women’s program to join the team last September. “I said to the girls, this will be my motivation. I’ll never see a player of that quality in that state after a tournament.”
And, well, it came close after the last-minute larceny of losing to the Americans Monday with an extra-time goal that bumped Canada out of contention for the gold medal match at the London 2012 Summer Games. Sinclair, with those deep-set eyes was flashing her laser beam look of doom, not so much with despair, but certainly anger. There was outrage at some of the calls by Norwegian referee Christiana Pendersen, especially one against goalie Erin McLeod, for holding the ball too long. Outrage in Canada, too, at the loss, and the waste of Sinclair’s brilliant hat trick and of an overall level of play that showed this was indeed a world-class team.
Which brings us to the bronze metal match against France at a lovely new stadium in Coventry where the Canadians played most of their Olympic games. They’d come to think of it as their home turf, but they’d so wanted to play their last game in London, where the gold medal game was decided. No such luck so it was back to Coventry for bronze.
They had three days to restore their battered souls and bodies, swallow their disappointment and square off against the very difficult French. France whipped then 4-0 in the World Cup last June, the most humiliating loss of a humiliating tournament, where the Canadians lost every game. Herdman and his crew drafted their usual meticulous game plan, with one addition: a presentation in slides and video of the avalanche of goodwill, outrage and support that had piled in from every corner of Canada after their U.S. loss.
But, it soon came clear that loss had taken a physical and emotional toll on the team. “I think heading into the game we thought the emotions of being in the bronze medal game would sort of take us through it,” Sinclair said afterwards. “But most of us realized, I think partway through the first half, that we were absolutely gassed.”
The Canadians were flat. There were more than a few mental errors, wasted throw-ins and missed passes. The French, meanwhile, built the sort of impenetrable defensive wall that would have served them well circa 1939. Fortunately for the Canadians, the French were also the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. Their forwards rang balls off the goal posts and crossbars, and to the left, to the right and overtop. The shots that did hit the net were handled by McLeod, who played brilliantly, and by midfielder Desiree Scott, who deflected away a dead-certain goal inches before it crossed the line.
By any measure there were at least ten golden—well, bronze—scoring opportunities that eluded France.
Even a good team knows when it’s being outplayed. “I’m absolutely sure,” Herdman said, “everyone at home put a force field along the goal.”
But it takes a great team to know it’s being beaten, and not get beat.
For the second game in a row the Canadians fought for their lives in injury time, and in the 91st minute midfielder Diana Matheson was playing far forward when all logic dictated she should be back at centre awaiting another French attack. The ball came to her, she doesn’t even recall how, and she went through one of those slow-motion Chariots of Fire experiences where she placed the ball exactly where it needed to be, which is to say the back of a largely open net.
There it was, not only Canada’s first Olympic medal in soccer since the men won gold in 1904, but the first medal by the country in a team summer sport since the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin. “I was just in the right spot at the right time,” she said. She broke into a beautiful smile at the biggest goal she’s ever scored, and grabbed at her game jersey to kiss the Canadian team crest. “It felt like a dream,” she said. “It feels unreal right now. I’m just so happy for the team, the staff and all the Canadians that have been supporting us.”
The thing of it is, it was a total team effort, not the Christine Sinclair show. She had a strong crew on the field, in the support team, and, to hear the women tell it later, in every Canadian that rallied to their side over the past three days. Sinclair can finally relax, the team around her is at a new level, Herdman said.
The game ended about 10 seconds after the goal. Within minutes, Canadian Olympic rowing champion Marnie McBean tweeted the perfect post-game analysis: “Why do you train that hard? So you can win on the bad days!”
One can’t but feel a tug of sympathy for the French team, who left the field gutted. Their coach, Bruno Bini, slumped before the microphone in a perfect Gallic funk. “Sometimes you can give everything, and at the end it’s just not enough,” he said. “It’s just like a love story, and afterwards, the person is still going away.” The melancholy moment lacked only a smoldering Gitanes, a carafe of red and a violin.
Football can be cruel, Herdman said. But not Thursday. Not when the team captain is at his side, looking as though a massive weight was lifted off her, barely a year after a World Cup humiliation that sank the team to its lowest point in all her years on the team.
“It was great to see Christine smiling,” were about the first words out of Herdman’s mouth. He had to be thinking how good that photo is going to look on his office wall.