PARIS — Stephanie Labbe choked back the emotion. Sophie Schmidt’s voice broke. Desiree Scott was in shock.
Christine Sinclair was the last player to emerge after Canada’s World Cup-ending 1-0 loss to Sweden in the round of 16 Monday. She had time to compose herself, saying she was disappointed with the result, but not her team’s effort.
But it was hard to erase the memory of the talismanic captain on her knees face down on the turf at Parc des Princes after the final whistle of a game that saw Canada fall victim to one Swedish counter-attack and its inability to pull even — missing a potentially tying penalty kick.
"This one will hurt, I think, just because we played so well," the 36-year-old Sinclair acknowledged. "And we definitely had the team to go deeper in this tournament, so that’s disappointing."
Fifth-ranked Canada, which came to the tournament with high hopes of bettering its quarterfinal showing four years ago on home soil, could not break down the ninth-ranked Swedes as its offence lacked clinical finishing again.
The tournament lasted just four games for the Canadian women, with two losses to lower-ranked sides.
While coach Kenneth Heiner-Moller said he was proud of this team, he suggested it had not fired on all cylinders.
"Did you see the best of Canada? Maybe not in the entire 90 minutes of the game," he said. "I think you saw a very good Canadian side for a long period of time today. But maybe not the best today."
It was a matchup of the Rio Olympic silver (Sweden) and bronze medallists (Canada) with the gold medallist Germans awaiting the winner on Saturday in Rennes. Second-ranked Germany blanked No. 38 Nigeria 3-0 in Saturday in the first game of the knockout phase.
The game started as advertised with two disciplined teams cancelling each other out before 38,078 on a hot summer night at Parc des Princes.
But Stina Blackstenius broke the deadlock in the 55th minute after a Janine Beckie giveaway. Kosovare Asllani drove up the field, outpacing chasing defender Kadeisha Buchanan, and sent in a perfectly weighted cross that curled around centre back Shelina Zadorsky. Labbe came out of her goal but the Swede got a foot to the ball first for the all-important goal before all three went tumbling.
A Schmidt header went wide in the 67th minute, but the play went to video review for an Asllani handball from a blocked Scott shot in the buildup — and Australian referee Kate Jacewicz correctly pointed to the penalty spot.
Beckie stepped up, only to have Hedvig Lindahl make a marvellous diving save. While Beckie’s shot was well-aimed, many wondered why Sinclair did not take the spot kick.
Sinclair explained later that since Lindahl had saved her penalty in their-third-place at the Algarve Cup in March — Canada won the shutout 6-5 nevertheless — she had gone up to Beckie and said "If you want it, it’s yours. And she said, ‘Absolutely."’
"I feel bad for even asking her," Sinclair said. "But I have all the faith in the world in her. We all do. She’s fearless out there."
"The keeper made a world-class save and you have to tip your hat to her," she added.
Beckie said Sinclair asked her during the video review of the handball if she wanted to take it because of what happened at the Algarve Cup. "I said, ‘It’s up to you.’ And she told me to take it," Beckie related.
The 24-year-old forward was disconsolate after the game.
"I feel like I let the team down, that’s really what I’m feeling right now. Frustrated, disappointed and all the negative emotions."
Heiner-Moller switched formations and threw on Adriana Leon in a bid for more offence.
The Canadians kept coming but they lacked the final touch when needed. And the Swedes defended valiantly in numbers.
Sweden offered more offence after its goal and thought it had a penalty in the 82nd minute after two Swedes went down in the box one after another. But the penalty call was reversed on video review thanks to an offside call.
Scott cleared a Swedish shot off the line in the dying minutes.
Thanks to the VAR reviews and substitutions, there were eight-plus minutes of frantic stoppage time with Labbe moving up to join the attack as Canada laid siege on the Swedish goal.
Asked how she felt, a subdued Schmidt replied: "Gutted."
"Heartbroken, especially for the people at this their last World Cup," she added, her voice breaking.
"It’s a stinger, that for sure," said Labbe. "I think we’re going to …" She trailed off as her emotions took over and she pulled her jersey over the bottom of her face.
"I’m sorry," she said and paused. "We’re going to feel this one for a long time. What’s tough about it is we put in such a good performance. You can’t fault the passion and the grit and the heart that the girls left out there on the field. To the final minute, we were pushing for a chance and unfortunately that quality shot, that quality cross … we couldn’t get on the end of them."
Scott described her emotions as "Shocked, frustrated. Kind of lost for words."
"This is an early exit for us. Nothing we could have pictured. Credit to Sweden, (they) gave us a tough match. But we’re just sad right now. It’s frustrating to be leaving so early."
Nichelle Prince returned to the lineup after sitting out the last group game in the only change for Heiner-Moller.
While the speed of Prince and Beckie offered some Canadian promise early on, chances were few and far between. The Swedes offered little other than the occasional counterattack from a Canadian turnover. At the other end, they sometimes had six defenders in a line.
Canada looked for ways to break the Swedes down. A chance for Jessie Fleming some 20 minutes in was wasted with the ball well off-target.
While Canada had 61 per cent of possession in the first half, it failed to register a shot. Sweden had three shots, none on target. It was the third game of the tournament without a shot in target in the first half.
"I thought we had a brilliant first half," said Schmidt. "We just didn’t create a great enough chance where we scored. I think that was lacking, potentially the story of the tournament for us."
The Canadians scored four goals at the tournament, conceding three. They were unbeaten in eight games (5-0-3) in the buildup to the tournament in 2019, outscoring the opposition 8-1. But five of those goals came in two games, against No. 26 Mexico and two against No. 38 Nigeria.
With the Olympics looming next year, the hope is the Canadian team will stay together. With an average age of 25 years and three months, it was the fourth-youngest at the tournament.
Sinclair, who upped her goals tally to 182 with one goal at the tournament, only said she was headed for rest and relaxation before rejoining her Portland Thorns NWSL team.
Asked if she would be back for a sixth World Cup, Sinclair replied: "I don’t know about that. We’ll see. We’ll see if Kenneth wants me around."
Not surprisingly that answer is a resounding yes.
"I’m trying to convince her … Hopefully she’ll stay a few more years," said the Danish coach.
Canada came into the game with a 5-13-4 record against Sweden, having been outscored 42-24..
Canada opened group play by beating No. 46 Cameroon 1-0 and No. 19 New Zealand 2-0 before losing 2-1 to the eighth-ranked Dutch.
"There are a lot of good teams here," said Heiner-Moller. "We know if you have back-to-back losses, you don’t make it very far in the World Cup."
The Swedes downed No. 39 Chile 2-0 and No. 34 Thailand 5-1 and lost 2-0 to the top-ranked U.S.
Sweden has never lost to Canada at the World Cup or Olympics (3-0-1).
The Canadian women made it to the quarterfinals at the 2015 World Cup on home soil, losing 2-1 to England. Canada’s best showing was in 2003 when it finished fourth (after a 2-1 loss to Sweden in the semifinals).