So farewell then, Josée Bélanger. At a small press conference Monday, Bélanger announced that she is retiring from professional soccer two weeks after her 31st birthday. She will reportedly open a soccer school, and has already done youth coaching around her native Quebec.
This announcement, while sad, has surprised nobody. Bélanger took the year off from the NWSL and has publicly contemplated her post-soccer future. She told the Orlando Sentinel last September that she wanted to be a mother and alluded to the wear and tear soccer’s put on her body which might not make that easy. It is a dilemma male players never have to deal with, and guarantees respect for the early departure of a rare Canadian who can make an honest living playing soccer.
It turns out Bélanger’s last ride was, appropriately, February’s bronze medal celebration match in Vancouver, where she provided 57 minutes of effective right-back work before giving way to Rhian Wilkinson. Wilkinson, along with Marie-Eve Nault and Melissa Tancredi, were being honoured for their many contributions in one last pre-retirement bash. Bélanger was not. When she left the Canadian national program for good it was to a chorus of applause, but the applause was aimed at Wilkinson because all thought, or at least hoped, Josée would be back. Bélanger had earned an individual tribute, but flew under the radar again.
Bélanger hangs them up with a modest 57 senior international appearances, seven goals, one Olympic bronze medal (she missed London 2012), and a forgettable club career. She was twice Quebec professional of the year, ranks with Nault and Isabelle Morneau as the best female French-Canadian players of all time, and has a devoted following in her home province, but to the rest of the country she was never a first-tier star. But when the time comes to write the history of the great Canadian WNT of 2012 to the present, the best national team Canada has ever produced, Bélanger will deserve a chapter.
First off, she scored one of the great Canadian goals, when at the 2015 Women’s World Cup she gave Canada a 1-0 win over Switzerland in the round of 16. Vancouver would have cheered her out of that celebration friendly for the sake of this moment alone.
In more ways than one she was not supposed to be there. She had never been one of the golden girls, playing CIAU soccer at Sherbrooke, USL W-League in Laval, getting a few appearances in the youth programs, and being rated promising but not brilliant. Her debut in 2004 proved premature, and at the end of 2010 she had a run as a regular on the senior team under Carolina Morace. She played regularly in World Cup qualifying, scored a few goals, badly injured her ankle, came to camp for the Cyprus Cup and the Yongchuan Invitational without getting on the field and, like many a young striker of that era, went straight to obscurity.
Though she’d left the highest level Bélanger hung around, playing more W-League in Laval and Quebec City. She did some youth coaching in Sherbrooke. She met her boyfriend and got into Crossfit. She even had the hidden blessing of missing the 2011 Women’s World Cup, one of the worst things ever to happen to Canadian soccer. By all accounts she was content. John Herdman was interested in her when he took over after the 2011 debacle but Bélanger stayed in Quebec, trained kids, Crossfitted, and got on with her life. Until, in November 2013, she returned to the national fold for a first-team training camp. Even then she was the forgotten woman, because the other returning player that camp happened to be Kara Lang.
Lang’s comeback, enormously hyped-up, amounted to not much. Bélanger’s, hardly noticed except by the hardcore, was for real. She made her twelfth cap, and her first in over three years, on January 31, 2014 against the United States. As Canada began its run up to 2015 Bélanger became a regular; she went 90 minutes only twice but routinely started and came on as an early substitute when she didn’t. Her performances, when she appeared on TV, were admirable. Eyes turned in her direction.
But here is the other way in which Bélanger was not supposed to be there. To that point she had been an attacking player for both club and country. With Lang’s injury ending her career for good and Janine Beckie not yet in the senior picture Canada was shallow up top. But when Bélanger returned to senior Canadian soccer she was our right fullback. We’ve since grown used to John Herdman turning forwards into fullbacks through the success of Ashley Lawrence, but in 2014 it was an innovation. Bélanger was not only competent defensively, but her attacking brio and dynamic crossing down the right flank gave Canada a totally different look than that long-provided by veteran Rhian Wilkinson.
Wilkinson entered the 2015 World Cup injured so Bélanger made her long-belated World Cup debut, aged 29, on a backline with Allysha Chapman, Kadeisha Buchanan, and Lauren Sesselmann at Commonwealth Stadium against China. Next to Buchanan Bélanger was the defensive standout, as the Chinese refused to say die until nearly the last kick of the game. Not only was Bélanger’s defending effective but she nearly won the match herself in the first half, hitting the crossbar after a muffed Chinese clearance. She chipped in to the clean sheet against New Zealand and, in Montreal, started at right back before moving up top for the last ten minutes, a virtual offensive substitute as Wilkinson returned from injury and Canada tried unsuccessfully to win a 1-1 draw against the Dutch.
Had it ended there, Bélanger would have been a pleasant on-field surprise and an excellent feel-good story. But as we know there was more to come, and the forgotten woman of 2011 became the hero of 2015 by returning to forward and defeating the Swiss. If she did not get the full sports-movie ending with that 2-1 quarterfinal loss to England, she had still done enough to make sure she would never be forgotten again.
That was the high point of Bélanger’s career, but she had many other contributions to make. She had a brief but fruitful run with European powerhouse FC Rosengard and was a highly-popular member of the Orlando Pride alongside fellow Canadian Kaylyn Kyle. At the 2016 Olympics she was less vital than in 2015; Chapman and Lawrence were the first-choice fullbacks, Beckie, Sinclair, and Deanne Rose had locked down the front three, and when Bélanger did draw in she got herself suspended for the semifinal. That semifinal was, not coincidentally, the only game Canada lost, and when we won she mattered. She had a strong supporting role in The Melissa Tancredi Game against the Germans, played super-sub for the injured Chapman in the quarterfinal against France with a vital clearance, and in the bronze medal match, against Brazil, killed the game off excellently as a substitute. It did not capture the national imagination to the same degree, but the Rio 2016 bronze medal was a greater achievement than London. It is typical of Bélanger that she missed immortality, then helped win something less fêted but more difficult.
The most recent Canadian camp in Europe saw the remarkable return of Shannon Woeller, a 27-year-old defender whose last appearance came before the 2012 Olympics. Woeller had been all-but-forgotten, scraping out a decent career in Germany, and was not even named to the national team roster before showing up more-or-less because she was in the neighbourhood. Then she got on the field against the Germans, and now she’s one of two veterans at our Vancouver pre-training camp. If Woeller fights her way back into the national picture it will be one of the most unexpected comebacks of all time. But, she can think to herself as Bélanger leaves with such respect, not an unprecedented one.