On the current FIFA Women’s World Rankings, Canada is ranked number five and Sweden is number nine. In the past five years, Canada’s record against Sweden before today’s Women’s World Cup round of 16 match was two wins, a loss, and two draws (one of which Canada won on penalties). Both teams finished second in their respective groups, though the Swedes’ was the stronger. Betting lines were even. Both teams were healthy. Sweden winning 1-0 is not the upset of the century.
But be honest, Canadian fans: we were looking past that game a bit, wondering how we’d do against Germany. Sweden’s not going to win this tournament and this was supposedly our best team ever. Better than the 2003 Canadian team that finished fourth in a World Cup after losing its semi-final to, er, Sweden. Anyway, we should be losing to first-rate powers, not the Netherlands and the Swedes. And it was agonizing. The first half was dull, but shaped well for Canada, who were doing everything they should have against quality opposition. Then we gave up a goal early in the second, missed a VAR’d penalty on one of those “unnatural position” fake handballs that we were all morally certain would go against us, snatched at half-chances, subbed on Rebecca Quinn for some reason1, and plain got beat.
We weren’t unlucky. Our weaknesses, chance creation and the centre back who isn’t Kadeisha Buchanan, were predictable and cost us in the end. Sweden played Canada at our own game and was better on the day, holding Canada down by every measure. They played without any of the extracurricular crap we’ve seen elsewhere in the round of 16. They’ll be easy to cheer for in the rest of the tournament, or would be if they hadn’t knocked Canada out of the World Cup the absolute bastards.
So we’re disappointed, if not angry, and reacting in one of two ways. One is typified by Toronto FC tweeting “Hearts high, ladies,” whatever the fuck that means: treating the WNT like likable but forgettable short-track figure skaters who Steve Armitage told us might medal and finished sixth. This is probably emotionally healthy.
The other approach could be called “the fifteen-tweet thread,” and I’m not going to link to those because it’s not fair to read such outpourings of grief and fury into the permanent record. Suffice to say we all have great twisted strands of emotion coiled up inside our chests, ready to spring out with everything this soccer team makes us feel, usually good, this time bad.
Of course we’re overreacting. We just got eliminated from a Women’s World Cup disappointingly early, if we don’t have license to overreact now then when?
Christine Sinclair will probably never play a Women’s World Cup game again. Not that it’s impossible for her to make the 2023 team on merit at age 40: she plays more withdrawn for Portland and for a time with Canada in 2012, and succeeds. Middle-aged Sincy could absolutely be our Cuauhtémoc Blanco, fairly motionless but beating midfielders and pinging around balls and drawing way too much attention long after you think she should be past it. But Father Time is undefeated and the odds are against her. For the generation that’s grown up watching her play for teams that never looked as good as this one, this would be a heartbreaking way to end it if we didn’t have the 2020 Olympics to cling to like drowning sailors on driftwood.
And she should have taken that penalty. By now everyone knows that Sinclair told Janine Beckie to take it and Beckie, being both a striker and a mere mortal confronted with Christine Sinclair’s divine will, of course agreed. The kick was decent, too. She placed it too high but not far inside the post, which is usually good enough, and there was plenty of power; that kick goes in, what, nine times out of ten? This was the tenth time.
All that is immaterial, for the same reason Wayne Gretzky should have taken a shootout attempt at Nagano ’98 despite being 37 years old and the worst otherwise-great player on a breakaway that ever laced up skates. You give the legend the chance to do the legendary thing, and if the legend is selfless enough to pass on the opportunity you tell her to do it. Sinclair has the poise and experience to execute in the clutch, as she has so often, and had she missed (she is a good but not brilliant penalty taker) her legend would have survived unscathed, whereas now Janine Beckie will be carrying around redemption narratives until she personally scores a gold medal game brace against the US.
Four years ago in Edmonton, in stoppage time against China, Sinclair just crept her dramatic winning penalty between Wang Fei’s fingertips and the goalpost. That penalty was no better than Janine Beckie’s, believe me. Bottom corner but Wang could have walked over and trapped it if she’d kept her head. Didn’t happen, Canada won, and that goal was all that kept us from real embarrassment. Legends get away with things, if you let them.
There has been much call that this should spur us to create a national women’s soccer league in Canada. We always used to say that when the MNT was eliminated from things so I guess old habits die hard. Nobody is making the claim in so many words but to be clear, no imaginable Canadian women’s league starting on a timeline like that of the men’s league we actually got (i.e. first kick this past spring) would have made any possible difference to this result. The entire 2019 roster is either in a good club situation or is younger than a women’s player usually turns pro. Maybe Jade Kovacevic scores eight goals for York Femi-9, gets Adriana Leon’s roster spot, and poaches a goal off the bench in stoppage time, but given the WNT’s usual reluctance to change around its rosters that seems pretty fan-fictiony. If CanWPL started tomorrow it would start to pay off for 2023.
A CanWPL is a very good idea on many levels, but we may have missed our best chance to get more than “WPSL, but Canadian and not quite as shitty.” I spent years saying the Canadian Premier League should have been for women rather than men and now the money is spent on men’s programs that can’t approach sustainability for five years. A women’s league can come out of that (League1 Ontario and the PLSQ both have them) but it won’t match the top-league-in-the-world potential we had before. We’ll see; forming a quality professional women’s league because we’re so pissed off Adriana Leon skied that shot in the 18-yard box and not because we were thrilled at the successful 2015 WWC would be very like us. Even a Canadian WPSL, like the Canadian USL League One we have for the men, would be infinitely better than nothing and those who put pressure on the CSA to get it are doing the Lord’s work. But it’s no magic bullet. For all the talk of the Mexican women’s league, and their occasional big attendances and competitive games, their national team has never been worse than it is today.
So what do we do, for short-term results? First, resist the urge to panic. Gavin Day said this is “the last hurrah for the core veteran group at the WWC” but only Sinclair is a near-sure thing: Matheson and McLeod are already gone, one of Schmidt (30) or Scott (31) probably won’t make it, and while 32 isn’t old for a goalie Steph Labbé might have been passed as Kailen Sheridan by 2023. Most of these women will be back. Play Sinclair in the hole like in Portland, let Jordyn Huitema get the experience as a target woman she needs while she still has a veteran to mentor her, make Jessie Fleming your creative fulcrum and give her carte blanche to run where she will, and start Rebecca Quinn more. We have probably a friendly or two, plus Olympic qualifying, to fine-tune our approach, and it looks like the shithouse queenery did not leave enough margin for error. Meanwhile we do have, and it’s a credit to our system that we do, a modern team that can play a variety of styles, is naturally fluid, and is lacking only a few things. This World Cup really was very well-played. Now, let’s put our talented players where they can best influence the game and see what happens. I really, really want Christine Sinclair to get that gold medal.
- I like Rebecca Quinn. She should have started this whole tournament. She got a hat trick once. But an odd move.