Al Quintero/Canadian Soccer Association
It’s a bastard, but the Canadian women’s soccer team was better off losing today and everybody knew it. Defeating Germany, the current second-ranked team in the world
and the overall strongest nation in women’s soccer history, would give Canada its first-ever perfect group stage in a major international tournament and represent our biggest upset of all time. Incidentally, it would also make our lives much worse, all-but-guaranteeing Canada a quarter-final matchup against world number three France rather than a relatively sweet game against China or Sweden.
In FIFA tournaments the knockout-round brackets are drawn before the groups are set and life is unfair: the winner of Group F, Canada’s group, was predestined to face the second-place team of Group G, containing both France and the United States. Whereas the second-place team in Canada’s group would take on the second-place team from Group E; in any event much easier opposition. The Olympics are a twelve-team tournament and, thanks to FIFA’s format, even with Japan out in qualifying it’s probably impossible to balance what Canada boss John Herdman calls the “tier 1” teams of the United States, Germany, France, and Japan fairly. In 2012 Canada got lucky with the draw and in 2016 we didn’t. Such is life.
With the rewards for second place being so great, the attitude of the Canadian supporter was unusual. No result against Germany, however disastrous, could have eliminated us from the tournament, and the pressure was off. I don’t think any fans went so far as to say we should deliberately lose today; this isn’t the NHL. But there was a definite feeling of “not necessarily losing, but losing if necessary;” that while we shouldn’t give Germany the three points, we could put ourselves in a position where it would be easier for Germany to take them. I think John Herdman agreed. Christine Sinclair, the best player in the history of women’s soccer, started on the bench. So did Janine Beckie, the leading scorer of the Olympics so far, and Ashley Lawrence, Canada’s presumptive 2016 player of the year. They joined Kadeisha Buchanan, the 20-year-old world-class centreback who had been suspended thanks to a yellow card against Zimbabwe that definitely looked deliberate, and Erin McLeod, one of the five best players in Canadian history but out for as long as two years with a knee injury, on the shelf.
As for the Germans? The senior Canadian women’s team first played them July 27, 1994 in Montreal and lost 2-1, giving up two goals to a debutante named Birgit Prinz who would become the best female player in European history. Since then Canada has played Germany in three World Cup games and nine friendlies, and lost every single one. Our women’s U-20s have also lost every game against Germany, including the 2-0 German victory in 2014 that eliminated us from the U-20 Women’s World Cup at home, and our U-17s can boast only a single 2-2 draw on March 15, 2014, when Jessie Fleming and Marie Levasseur got us a precious point at the U-17 World Cup. By any measurement, at any age group, Canada is hugely inferior to Germany. There is no improvement with context and no space for an asterisk. The Germans have played us more than a dozen times and dominated almost every one. Canada plays Germany, Germany wins easily, and we walk away thinking “we did okay, considering.” That is how it works.
Now, the remorseless calculus I detailed above applied to Germany as well. They wanted to finish second in their group as much as Canada did, but there was a hitch. In a shock result on Saturday, Germany managed only a 2-2 draw against Australia. As a result, while a draw would have suited the Germans very well, a loss might have been a problem as there was a possibility they’d finish third in the group and life would suddenly get a little too interesting. Besides, when you’re Germany, the prospect of facing France isn’t quite so intimidating.
Therefore Germany did not dare run out the full “B” squad. Anja Mittag, the closest German equivalent to Sinclair, started. So did skipper Saskia Bartusiak, legendary midfielder Melanie Behringer, and defender Annike Krahn, one of the best defensive players to ever live. Their second-best forward, Dzsenifer Marozsán, started, but their best, Alexandra Popp, did not. Call it an A- team against Canada’s full B. A boring 0-0 would have been fine by Germany’s lights, and when Behringer converted an early penalty (well-deserved by the lovable but aggressive Allysha Chapman) to put Germany up 1-0, that should have been that. Canada wouldn’t mind losing, Germany might give up one the other way but no more than that, the two teams would fight about the details but that would be all. As a truly competitive fixture this would be done.
That’s where we were wrong.
I don’t mind tooting my own horn here. On Twitter and this past weekend’s episode of 99 Friendship I was unequivocal: I wanted Canada to go for it and beat Germany, if we possibly could. Sure, it would give us a tougher quarterfinal game, but the rewards in terms of morale and pleasure would be well worth it. Canada doesn’t beat “tier 1” teams, except for the bronze medal match at London 2012, and that game has lived forever. To do it again, albeit in a somewhat lesser context; yes, that would be worth giving up a good shot at a fourth-place finish.
But if I brag, you’ll take it in context. Because the one thing I believed more fervently than “we should beat Germany if ever we can” was “Melissa Tancredi should be nowhere near the Canadian starting eleven.” In fact I wouldn’t have taken her to Rio at all. 34 years old, slow as hell, uninspiring even against Zimbabwe, having never recovered her accuracy or reflexes from when she took time off to get a fake chiropractic degree, she didn’t belong in the same universe as a national soccer team. The jokes I made about her were actually cruel, and though I sometimes tried to temper it with “but I remember when she saved our asses in 2012…” I didn’t always. 2015 was ever-so-much-more-recent, after all, and had we taken Janine Beckie instead of Tancredi that World Cup might have gone very differently.
It wasn’t personal. Big, humble in both attitude and origin, always giving her 100%, and willing to be a complementary player while also being unafraid to take the team on her back, Tancredi is everything you want a Canadian athlete to be. Her flaws are age and athleticism and neither is her fault. But this is high-level sport, and so I was right out in front saying Tancredi should be given a fake “retirement game” in which she plays six minutes then gets put out to pasture without so much as a handshake and a plaque. God love her but she’s useless. The idea of her taking minutes from a Janine Beckie, a Deanne Rose, or a Nichelle Prince is an actual insult, and while friendship and connectedness are all very well, this is a business and John Herdman needs to make a business decision once in a while. When the Canadian Soccer Association announced that both Sinclair and Diana Matheson were sitting, and that Tancredi was not only starting but taking the captaincy for the day, I reacted badly.
If ever you read this blog again, please remember that I am an idiot.
Forget the goals. Tancredi started great. She launched a beautiful flick-on header to Josée Bélanger, then swept another one-touch ball to Bélanger off her foot, in the first ten minutes. Neither amounted to anything because, as I said above, Germany is excellent, but Tancredi was all over the shop in the best way. Making herself available for passes, playing the pass accurately when it arrived, looking like the woman of four years earlier. It was inspiring stuff, even before she’d troubled the scorers, even when Behringer had converted that penalty and Germany was outchancing Canada ten to one. Even when it looked like we were about to lose 3-0 and not mind too much. You couldn’t say Tancredi had done a thing wrong, come what may.
Then the game changed. Desirée Scott (another popular whipping girl for the past few months) pushed the ball forward through an open channel to Tancredi, and am I crazy or did Tank take it out left, try the shot, and miss the ball? Hahaha! She’s so old! She’s so awful! Janine Beckie would have scored! Except one of the advantages of her experience is that you know how to compose yourself when things don’t go just right, and Tancredi was going for another shot before Germany had realized their chance. This time she got it just right, sliding it low into the corner, and Canada had tied the game.
Now, at this point it was 1-1 in the first half and Germany was still playing well. Tancredi was in line to be Canada’s man of the match but no more than that: a “she exceeded my expectations, fair play to her,” a footnote in history, a little “hey you remember when Tancredi…” in five years’ time. She kept working hard, giving the German defense fits, and throwing herself around the field to make plays, but that’s no more than even her most fervent haters would have expected.
What changed the game was not, without diminishing her accomplishments, Tancredi as an individual. It was that her teammates picked up on her energy and raised their own level to meet it. An old, popular player was absolutely on form against a marquee opponent, and which of those Canadians was going to give anything less than her best and cause Tanc to lose face? Which of them would dare be responsible for turning what might be their friend’s last great game into a lowly piece of trivia? The long-time comrades of Tancredi’s, like Rhian Wilkinson and Sophie Schmidt, certainly felt it. But so did the solid Rebecca Quinn and relatively recent re-introduction Josée Bélanger. Maybe we shouldn’t make fun of #99friendship and the #mostconnectedteam so cavalierly, because that game was a demonstration of its value.
We sat down to watch a meaningless scrimmage, and an all-time classic broke out. Germany was still on their game, still pushing, but Canada was a step ahead and slowly gaining the ascendancy. At half, jokes about “well, what if Canada wins and has to play France?” had suddenly become a little more serious and a lot less terrifying. The spark of magic was in the air, and Tancredi getting her head to a bombed-in free kick from Quinn was only justice. 2-1 to Canada! It was the first time Canada had led against Germany in over a decade, when Charmaine Hooper and Kara Lang staked Big Red to a 2-0 lead on September 4, 2005 that they’d subsequently blow for a 4-3 loss.
We didn’t blow this one. Tancredi was a massive reason why, clearing defensive headers from our own box on set pieces. So was Diana Matheson, who came on as a substitute and immediately threw herself into slide tackles like she was playing for two medals at once. Steph Labbé, another player I think I may have said a few bad words about, not only shagged some crosses but made a dandy save late in the second half to preserve a 2-1 lead. The Germans brought out Popp, threw everyone forward, went like hell to get a draw and a point that might be precious. In reply, John Herdman sent on Nichelle Prince for Deanne Rose, and I would bet a million dollars that, before the game, Herdman had conceived that move as “Prince for Tancredi.” But a good coach knows how to adapt to the situation, and it wound up being a good move in its own right. Prince showed an unexpected level of defensive intensity, winning the ball in the climactic minutes of stoppage time to get Canada that 2-1 win and its first ever point at the senior level against the Germans. A relatively new player, but she wasn’t going to let her friends down either.
As a result, Canada will face a quarterfinal of death against France. There will be no restraint in France, no “well a draw would be better…” They will be too happy to avenge their loss in the London 2012 bronze medal game. We played them very hard in a recent tune-up friendly, but France held some of their stars back and still won 1-0. The bookies will make them big favourites to beat us and, let’s be honest, squinting through the haze of victory, they’re probably right. If we’re dispassionate, odds are that despite playing much better than we did four years ago, Canada’s 2016 Olympics will end in the quarterfinal.
And you know what? I don’t care. For the first time ever Canada beat Germany. They did it without Buchanan, without McLeod, without Sinclair. They did it to a German team that, notwithstanding some early uncertainty, definitely wanted to stop us and ran out every gun they had. They did it in the Olympic Games, and in women’s soccer it’s debatable whether the Olympics rank behind the World Cup at all. I hope we can beat France, keep this wonderful run going, but even if we do lose it’ll be worth it. We beat Germany, fair and square. That’s one to tell the grandkids about. And Melissa Tancredi was the heroine, reminding us all that you don’t get to the pinnacle of sport if you can’t prove the haters wrong once in a while.
(notes and comments…)