Defeat with Grace

By Benjamin Massey

August 16th, 2016 · No comments

Andrew Soong/Canadian Soccer Association

Andrew Soong/Canadian Soccer Association

I spent all morning beside myself with anxiety. My game-weekdays have a ritual: roll my office chair around aimlessly, pace back and forth for a couple hours, get up for water more than any hydrophiliac would find necessary. Then, go to the pub. Drink, drink, drink, bullshit with comrades, and drink some more. Leap up every time Canada had the ball in the attacking half, collapse in my stool every time possession was squandered. Live and die with the team; mostly die. Hollywood North would be proud. Everything went straight to the script.

So did the result: a 2-0 defeat for Canada against Germany. If this was your first women’s soccer game you’d say “Germany was better” and you’d be right. Germany looked like the more powerful team because they were. Consistently Canada launched an audacious through ball, attempted to cut the corners of the defensive square with a sudden break, and consistently Germany cut it out, because they were a half-step ahead of us through superior vision and talent. The illusion of last Wednesday, when these Canadian women snatched a stunning 2-1 victory over the Germans, is rightly dispelled. If Sweden advanced to the gold medal game by being cowards, Germany advanced by being capable. Despite being near the top of the women’s game throughout its history Germany has never before played for Olympic gold, but now they have a huge opportunity to be champions. You know what? Good for them.

It is a truism of Canadian soccer that winning never feels as good as losing does bad. The glory of Diana Matheson’s 2012 bronze-medal winner against France does not make up for that agonizing semifinal against the United States. Canada played the Americans like hell in the 2007 Gold Cup, but Atiba was onside. FC Edmonton did everything against the Montreal Impact at the 2014 Voyageurs Cup except not get screwed over by Drew Fischer, but what do we remember? Agony pierces through all other memories. This is why torture works. No Canadian supporter will ever be so stupid as to say “as long as I remember the love of my family and my country, ISIS can do what they will.” We’ll hand over the nuclear codes straight away. We’ve been there.

Today?

Today was an exception.

Don’t mistake me. That sucked. I won’t be in any hurry to watch that game again. The backbreaking first goal, when Kadeisha Buchanan flagrantly gave away a penalty in a situation when there was no need to leave her feet at all, was classic Canada shooting itself in the face. God bless Buchanan, she’s a lion, but she spent the whole Olympics believing her own Buchananbauer hype, remembering how we fans would worship her aggressive but accurate tackles, and launching those challenges into situation when she should have just kept her footing and played straight defense. Frankly, we could have lost our quarterfinal thanks to an identical foul on Eugenie Le Sommer, but the foul against Le Sommer was missed and this one was called. Buchanan is only 20, an age at which Becky Sauerbrunn was playing part-time in the USL W-League and Amandine Henry just breaking into the French national team, young for a centreback of any gender, certainly young enough to iron a mental kink out of a game that is physically dominant and technically proficient enough. I doubt she got this far in her life without costing any of her teams a careless goal and she’s mature enough that we can call it straight. I’m not worried about her. Besides, she deserves us remembering her multiple excellent challenges as well as the late-first-half header off a Janine Beckie corner kick that was only just cleared off, or maybe after, the goal line.

But let’s look at what didn’t happen. There were no scandalous calls against us. There were no six-second-rules, no Abby Wambachs shouting into the referee’s ear. Germany played with class, scored two goals, and unlike some other semifinals past there was also no capitulation. Sure, Canada didn’t have luck on its side, but they clearly belonged in an Olympic semifinal against a German team that will end this tournament ranked number one in the world. We put up a better fight than Sweden did against the United States, but the Swedes got lucky when the Americans didn’t bury their chances, and we did not.

In my post on the first Germany game I pointed out how we’d walk away from the average game thinking “we did okay, considering.” Today we did okay, considering. We were without our starting goalkeeper (never forget that; Erin McLeod would have saved the second goal) and two of our top three fullbacks. Allysha Chapman defied my optimistic projections by not overcoming her shoulder injury and Josée Bélanger was suspended with yellow card accumulation. The difference between the sublime Ashley Lawrence and the inadequate Rhian Wilkinson should suffice to show what a difference top-class wide defending can make, when Chapman and Bélanger had put in two useful weeks.

And what weeks they were! 4-0-1 so far, including wins over Germany and France! Put an asterisk on Germany if you like, but Canada beat France when the French were desperate to win. The France of Henry, of Camille Abily, of Wendie Renard, of the legendary Louisa Cadamuro playing her final tournament before premature retirement, and they were denied their storybook ending by Janine Beckie, Sophie Schmidt, and an impregnable midfield. We’ve beat them before, but in 2012 we hung on by our fingernails and hoped for heroics, while in 2016 France was better but Canada actually played soccer against them. You’ll never confuse us with a tier one team, not yet, but we’ve become “a team which, on every given night, can beat a tier one team;” honest progress.

Time was we relied on Erin McLeod stealing a game and Christine Sinclair being a one-woman wrecking crew. Today, McLeod is hurt and Sinclair a shadow of her former self, good for her starting position but no star. We could have replaced her with Deanne Rose and not lost much. In goal, while Steph Labbé’s mistakes did not cost us the mistakes were made, and it took adroit defending to keep them out of our net. Yet Canada had, by the numbers, the best major tournament in our history, on the backs of Lawrence, a resurgent Schmidt, and Beckie, who snuck between German defenders and got the sort of chances Sinclair used to, even if she missed them. Two goals against in open play, one a meaningless late blunder against Zimbabwe, despite both starting centrebacks being suspended at one point in the tournament and a back line aged, going from left to right, 27, 23, 20, and 21. (The 27 was the most replaceable of the bunch.)

At London 2012 we cried ourselves to sleep in joy over a bronze medal. At Rio 2016, a bronze medal will be consolation, a little gong to commemorate a tournament we’ll never forget anyway. We fluked out a win over France in 2012; if the host Brazilians similarly get lucky against us in 2016 I doubt it’ll burn our guts out. In 2012 we hadn’t really done anything and needed the medal to take something from a tournament that should have been so much more. In 2016, we know what we’ve done, know what we’re capable of, and another bronze would be a bonus. That’s why we can view today’s loss with equanimity rather than heartbreak.

Now, I’m not leaping up and dancing. Sinclair is the greatest player in the history of women’s soccer and of Canadian soccer, and had a wholly unexpected late-career opportunity to win a gold medal. Olympic and World Cup glory have equally eluded her, and though she would have been a supporting player in any Rio 2016 triumph it wouldn’t matter: for her sake, alone, for the sake of putting a luminous exclamation mark on the sentence of a career that should be burned in fire, silverware would have been worth any sacrifice. If Sinclair retires without a championship then we, both the players who weren’t good enough for her and the fans who did not advance women’s soccer in this country when it could have made a difference, will wear the shame of that. We should still feel abashed. After all, there’s still no women’s professional soccer team anywhere in Canada.

However, on the day, can you point to one teammate and say “she didn’t leave everything on the pitch?” Even Buchanan’s mistake was an excess of passion. To blame some of our players for not being talented enough seems to miss the point: we can wish for the game of their lives but can hardly be upset when it wasn’t there. In the first German game (or the Melissa Tancredi game, as I find I want to call it), her friends and teammates sacrificed everything to turn a 2-1 lead into Olympic history. Overturning a 2-0 disadvantage against those same Germans takes more than sacrifice, but the skill is coming. Having just seen what we’ve seen, can we swear that Canada will not be among the contenders in 2020, and that Sinclair will not still be hanging around?

I’m not happy, but I’m content. I’m proud of that team, again. In the 2012 Olympics, the 2015 World Cup, and again this year, they never disappoint. Every time they rise just a little, a team that’s more than the sum of its parts, the best of Canadian traditions. This Olympics might have been the most worthy achievement of the John Herdman era and we haven’t even played for a medal yet.

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