VANCOUVER – It’s not often that a new executive position is created in the soccer world, let alone given to someone from Canada. That is the case for former national women’s team goalkeeper Karina Leblanc, now the new Head of Women’s Football for the CONCACAF region.
“Never would I have thought back when I was an athlete that it would lead to this,” LeBlanc told Sportsnet from her home in downtown Vancouver. “When you do things with so much passion, joy, and purpose, you end up with situations that you can’t plan. Now I’m in a position that’s a dream position.”
Among Leblanc’s responsibilities will be to increase opportunities for women in the sport across North and Central America and the Caribbean. From playing at the grassroots level, to developing referees, to improving competitions, LeBlanc knows the tasks in front of her will be challenging.
“My role will be to drive the women’s game,” LeBlanc said. “While we have two of the top five in the FIFA rankings in our region (USA No. 1., and Canada No. 5), we have 41 countries. A few don’t even have a women’s program. There’s a different range of issues I’m going to have to deal with to try and make CONCACAF the best region for women’s soccer.”
The journey LeBlanc has taken to get to this point is a remarkable one. Now 38, Leblanc was born to parents of Dominican and Jamaican descent in Atlanta. After spending her early years in Dominica, her family re-located to Maple Ridge, B.C, when she was eight. She took up soccer at 12 and it did not take long for her to excel as a goalkeeper. Before she knew it, she was on her way to play at the University of Nebraska in 1997.
While attending school and completing her degree in business administration, LeBlanc kick-started her career with Canada’s national team, and become one of the most decorated players in her country’s history. She earned 110 caps, including five trips to the Women’s World Cup, three appearances at the Pan Am Games, and two Olympic Games, which included a bronze medal in 2012 in London.
With Canada having so much success on the international stage, LeBlanc is not surprised to see how much the women’s game continues to grow.
“I think people are now seeing the investment values of the sport,” LeBlanc offered. “The more you see our national team with the likes of Christine Sinclair and Kadeisha Buchanan, the more they become role models for younger girls.”
Three years ago, Canada hosted the Women’s World Cup, with the final being held in LeBlanc’s hometown. Next year, the tournament will be in France, and Canada should be able to book its place in the tournament when qualifying begins next fall. LeBlanc knows Canada’s involvement has had, and will continue to make, a major impact on many girls who play the game.
“The World Cup here [in 2015] has grown it and more of our players are recognizable,” said LeBlanc, who feels the next step is to have Canadian-based teams playing at a professional level.
“It’s something I think we have to continue to push for. I think we need to have a professional league on the women’s side in this country. There’s no doubt about the impact it will have, especially around our region.”
While the game has given her so much, LeBlanc certainly has done her part to give back. Five years ago, she became the first female professional soccer player to be named a UNICEF Ambassador. Upon retiring in 2015, she was proclaimed a FIFA Legend, a role that has allowed her to attend numerous events worldwide, including the most recent men’s World Cup in Russia.
“She brings a vast knowledge and passion for the sport, having played for 18 years and serving as an advocate to providing access for more women to the game,” said CONCACAF President and Canada native Victor Montagliani. “Karina is the right leader to support our mission of advancing and promoting women’s football.”
LeBlanc begin her new role with CONCACAF in the first week of August, and she will be based out of Miami, Florida.