Q&A: Christine Sinclair on the state of Canadian soccer and the fight against MS

Canada's Christine Sinclair reacts during a CONCACAF Women's Championship soccer semifinal match against Jamaica in Monterrey, Mexico, Thursday, July 14, 2022. (Fernando Llano/AP)

Maybe it was sparked by the Serena Williams farewell tour or by watching The Captain, ESPN’s documentary about Derek Jeter, but recently I’ve been thinking a lot about athletes’ legacies. And that’s exactly where my mind went when I spoke to the most prolific goal-scorer in international soccer history, Olympic Gold medallist Christine Sinclair: How will the captain of Canada’s women’s national soccer team be remembered? What legacy is she building?

Those aren’t questions that occupy Sinclair. She refutes the notion she’s a living legend, and legacy isn’t something she spends much time thinking about. What Sinclair does think about is leadership. And when we connected in mid-August, that was naturally where she led our conversation. Sinclair discussed how she hopes to lead Canada towards a better pro pathway for female players. But that crucial work pales in comparison to her leadership in raising awareness and funds for the treatment of multiple sclerosis, the ailment her mother has battled for years.

The statistics around MS in this country are both sobering and staggering. Canada has one of the highest rates of MS in the world as, on average, 12 Canadians are diagnosed with MS every day. The disease also disproportionately impacts women. Seventy-five per cent of the people living with MS in Canada are women, and women are three times as likely as men to be diagnosed with the disease.

I caught up with Sinclair during a break from her training in Portland, where she stars for the NWSL’s Thorns FC, to discuss her work with Burgers to Beat MS Day, a now 10-year-old initiative in partnership with A&W to raise money for the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada. We also talked about the prospect of a domestic women’s pro league in Canada and the strength of men’s national team as it gets set to compete in the World Cup.

SPORTSNET: This is your sixth year taking part in the Burgers to Beat MS initiative. Have you noticed a change in that time in terms of the outreach you're able to achieve?
SINCLAIR: It just seems to have grown and grown every year. Obviously the COVID year a couple years ago was a little slow. I just feel that there's more and more awareness around Burgers to Beat MS Day and for MS — and not just in Canada. It's been cool to be a part of the growth of this, and hopefully I've contributed to that a little bit because it is a cause very close to my heart.

I know you don’t like to use the word “legacy,” but do you think about the fact that this could be attached to your name well after you stop kicking a football?
I mean, legacy is not something I spend much time thinking about. You can only do what you can on the field for so long. And you know, my soccer's given me a unique voice and a unique opportunity. When I was asked to be a part of this, it was a no-brainer. I just had to ask my mom for her permission to tell her story. It’s something that, looking back, I'll be most proud of. And it will definitely be something that I continue to be a part of for years and years to come.

Was it tough to get Mom's permission?
No. I mean, it was tough to ask her, just because it's her story and she has been through a lot. She suffered through MS in silence. Our family's very private, and I had to ask her permission to share her story with the world pretty much. She of course said yes. After the first year, she told me she'd never been prouder of me. That meant a lot.

I'm not going to ask about retirement because I feel like everybody does. But I am curious if you’ve thought of ways you want to impact the game whenever you stop playing? Have you allowed your mind to go there yet?
I think about it at times. I'm definitely going to be involved in the game one way or another. Definitely. When I stop playing, I’d love to be a fan for a little bit and just enjoy it. But obviously being down here in Portland, I don't see myself leaving. So I definitely would love to get involved with the Thorns organization and then in Canada — just try to help bring a professional environment there. I think that's the next step for soccer in Canada, and I'd love to, at least lend my voice or help in any way possible to bring that, because it's much needed.

Serena Williams refused to use the word “retirement” in talking about the transition to the next phase of her life. Many of the superlatives that can be placed on her and what she's done for her sport are also applicable to you. What was your reaction to her recent announcement?
She's potentially the greatest female athlete of all time. I think the way she's conducted herself through this transition, it's like with grace. I think it's how it should be done. Too many people use the word retirement, and it just seems like such an end and so drastic. And so final. All athletes go through it and you're just, like she said, evolving into a new part of your life. Look at how many very successful athletes have gone on to have very, very successful careers post-sports. I think sometimes the term retirement, I don't know for me, I picture some 70-year-old person retiring from their nine-to-five job. Athletes have so much to give after their sport. I really like the way that Serena's turned it into a positive and turned it into, like, there's so much more to come. What we do on the field or the court, it's such a small part of what we are and who we are.

There’s also so much more to come for the women's national team. After winning gold at the Olympics, do you feel more of a dynamic of being the hunted, not the hunter, or do you still feel like there's a lack of respect, given where the national team is in the world rankings?
It's hard to look at world rankings, just in general. They're so based on history. It's like your past four years of results. There was one time when we were ranked six or something where it was like, in order to be first, we would've had to beat the USA like eight times in a row. It's that hard and difficult. So, as players, we don't really look at rankings. I think as Canadians, we're still fighting and trying to climb, just for that respect. Trying to prove to the world that us winning gold wasn't just a one-time thing, that, you know, we've proven ourselves over the past 10 years. We're right up there, and the way the women's game's growing, there's six to eight teams now, realistically, that have chances to win these major tournaments. I definitely put us in that, and that's where the women's game is at right now.

All the other teams in that mix have domestic leagues. Last year, we spoke about the fact that needs to happen In Canada. Do you feel like you’re any closer? Do you feel any more optimistic?
No, unfortunately not. Obviously, there are talks. Retired players are starting to do some work behind the scenes. I know the CSA [Canadian Soccer Association] has hired an individual for the women's and girls’ development. But no, there's been no concrete steps made.

If anyone's watching the women's under-20 World Cup, Canada's already out after losing the first two games. And I mean, obviously there are some superstars on that team, do not get me wrong, and they have a lot to be proud of, but yeah, it concerns me that that's where our youth national teams are at right now and concerns me for the future, you know?

They just lost to a French team that has a handful of players playing professionally in Europe — like, all their players are at least in professional environments and developing and growing. And there's just not that pathway in Canada. We do a really good job of developing that top player and holding onto them and nurturing them and helping them get to the top. But I feel like we're missing a larger group of players, because we don't have places for them to play instead. They're in the U.S. college system playing four months a year, which was the way to go 15 years ago, but the game’s evolved, and countries have evolved and professional teams around the world have evolved. And we've moved past that.

As you watch the men’s national team in the runup to the World Cup, what has jumped out to you in terms of why they’ve found success?
Obviously I'm going to be a massive fan. I fully support, obviously, our men's team and John [Herdman, its head coach] and their staff. I think pretty much all their staff worked for the women's team at one point. I just think the world of John. I think they're going to go over there and hopefully surprise people. I'm not saying they're going to win the tournament, but I think they're going to have some good performances. Under John, the development — you've seen in the change in, yes, tactics. There are certain things you see and you're like, “Yeah, that's John.” But I think what you see most of all is just the brotherhood they've created, the team-first mentality. That wasn't always the case with the men's team and players sacrificing themselves for the team and for this opportunity. And it's pretty cool to see, because that's totally John. He did that with our team heading into London and forward from there and you see his imprint on just the culture, I'd say, more than anything.

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