UNFINISHED BUSINESS
By Stephen Brunt in Toronto
UNFINISHED BUSINESS
By Stephen Brunt in Toronto
Leading the most talented Canadian roster ever after two decades of battling for her country, Christine Sinclair's to-do list for the 2019 Women's World Cup is hard to top.

Don’t assume the end is nigh.

Christine Sinclair will turn 36 in June, and is about to play in her fifth World Cup, so naturally there will be an elegiac quality to much of what is said and written about her in the coming days as the Canadian Women’s National Team prepares for the tournament in France. It feels like the right time to look back and celebrate a long and remarkable career.

But Sinclair’s not one for nostalgia, or self-mythologizing, or making concessions — even to time . There will be an Olympic tournament next summer in Tokyo. The next women’s World Cup, location to be determined, might not be an impossible goal at age 40, given the way she is still playing.

So set aside any talk of a swansong, enjoy a player still very much in her prime, get ready for the moment when she becomes the greatest international scorer in history — male or female — and look ahead to what might be Canada’s best chance, ever, to (it would be in the national character to whisper this next part) win a World Cup. “We’re pretty good,” Sinclair says, tamping down expectations just a little with that adjective, while at the same time making it clear that her confidence level is extremely high. “It’s definitely the most talented team we’ve ever had. The most depth we’ve ever had. But we’ll see what happens come tournament time.”

And if, along the way, it dawns on a few more people that we are privileged to be watching one of the greatest athletes in our history, that Sinclair has already secured a spot on our athletic Mount Rushmore with Steve Nash and Donovan Bailey and all of those hockey players, well that’s fine, too — just don’t expect her to play along with the celebration.

She’s not built that way.

LIVING LEGEND
Still in her prime, Sinclair has already secured her spot on Canada's athletic Mount Rushmore

No sport has evolved more in the past two decades than women’s soccer. Period. Full stop. Canada didn’t even have a women’s national team until 1986, and if you looked back to the transformative 1999 World Cup (think Brandi Chastain), you’d see a brand of football that was direct and vertical, that relied on strength and speed and fitness far more than the ball skills, passing and finesse that are the hallmarks of the modern women’s game.

Sinclair played that direct style just fine, but her own development through the years as a playmaker and goal scorer has mirrored the sport’s advancement as a whole. “That makes me proud,” she says. “It makes me proud to think that I’ve survived the change in the game, that I’ve been able to adapt how I play and sort of progress with the evolution of the game.”

Back in 1999, she was a high-school student, a soccer-playing teenager from a soccer-crazy family watching that World Cup along with everyone else, but also seeing her future. “I think that World Cup changed the sport of women’s soccer,” she says. “It was the first tournament that was on the map, where everyone paid attention. I was fortunate enough to go down to Portland, watch a couple of games at the stadium I now call home [with Thorns FC of the National Women’s Soccer League], and I don’t even remember the teams that I was able to watch but I remember sitting there and thinking, ‘I’m playing in the next one. That’s what I want to do.’”

She earned her first cap for Canada as a 16-year-old at the Algarve Cup in 2000, and was indeed a part of Canada’s World Cup side in 2003, the tall, quiet kid among veterans like Andrea Neil, Silvana Burtini and Charmaine Hooper. Sinclair scored three goals on the way to a fourth-place finish — Canada’s best to date.

“It makes me proud to think that I've been able to adapt how I play and sort of progress with the evolution of the game.”

In between came the moment when the larger public fell in love with a golden generation of young Canadian players: the 2002 U19 tournament in Edmonton. The home side lost to the Americans in the final (soon to become a recurring theme). Sinclair scored 10 goals in the tournament, won the golden boot as top scorer and the golden ball as MVP, and the potential of that group to soon challenge the best in the world was obvious to all.

The path to the next podium, though, wasn’t quite a straight line.

'GOING NOWHERE'
The disastrous 2011 World Cup had Sinclair briefly thinking about quitting the national team

The defining moment of Sinclair’s career — and, in many ways, the defining moment for women’s soccer in Canada — came a decade later, at the climax of the remarkable 2012 Olympic tournament; the defiant, gut-wrenching 4–3 extra-time loss to the Americans (and an incompetent Norwegian referee) in the semi-final, followed by the tense 1–0 victory over France to reach the podium. Though Canada had been transformed by the Vancouver-Whistler Games in 2010 into a country that would settle for nothing less than gold, that bronze medal was the most emotionally satisfying accomplishment of those Olympics.

But to understand everything it represented for those players you have to roll back a year, to the disastrous World Cup in Germany the previous summer. Canada had handed over the coaching reins of the women’s team to Carolina Morace, who carried a reputation for tactical brilliance and who was charged with bringing a new level of sophistication to their game. The players bought in, or at least they said they did, and adapted as best they could to training in Italy and working with Morace’s hand-picked coaching and medical staff. The opening game loss to the host Germans was expected, with Sinclair’s free-kick goal the lone highlight, but when the captain suffered a broken nose, Canada’s tournament hopes suddenly hung by a thread.

Morace chose to use the injury to try and gain the upper hand on Canada’s next opponent, France. She left open the question of whether or not Sinclair could play, and did her best to fuel media speculation. All of the time spent on gamesmanship might have been better used figuring out a plan to beat a rising French side. Canada, with Sinclair wearing a protective mask, was pretty much played off the pitch, and their tournament was over.

The final, meaningless match, a loss to Nigeria, was as dispiriting an occasion as you’ll ever encounter in sport, an emotionally-broken team going through the motions while their coach sat cross-armed on the bench, having washed her hands of them. Canada finished dead last in the tournament, and some of the veterans, including Sinclair, had a passing thought that it might be time to pack it in.

“I just remember the end of the tournament and you question why you’re doing this. At that point, I’d been on the national team for 10 or 11 years. It had almost seemed like we had gone backwards. And yeah, you just questioned why do you put in all this time and effort and sacrifice. It seemed like the program was going nowhere. I’m pretty sure I thought about [quitting] when my nose was broken and we’d lost all our games. But no — deep down inside, no — because I knew that we did have a special group. We just hadn’t put it all together yet.”

John Herdman, a cheery, relentlessly upbeat Geordie, in many ways the anti-Morace, was hired as her replacement, and from the depths of despair emerged a special team. “John immediately brought this new life and new energy into the group,” Sinclair says “I remember him asking us all why we did it, why we all played this sport, why did we all come back. There was definitely some soul searching like trying to find our Why. And it took two camps, maybe, to change it all. You could see the passion and love of the sport come back and we were having fun again and enjoying being around each other, enjoying competing with each other and laying it all on the line for each other.”

“We’d been through the absolute worst together. You could just feel something special was going to happen.”

Still, did they really believe the phoenix would rise so soon after the heartbreak in Germany? “I think if you ask anybody in our team, in the staff, they’ll say yes,” Sinclair says. “Anyone outside of it would say absolutely not. They thought, ‘They’re not doing anything.’ But when you’ve gone through the experience of 2011 and come out on the other side … there’s that bond, the willingness to do absolutely anything for your teammates. We’d been through the absolute worst together. You could just feel something special was going to happen.”

Sinclair says she’s no longer mad about what happened in the match against the Americans, when the ref who will live in infamy, Christina Pedersen, seemed to have a finger on the scales. She scored all three goals that day, a performance that was both sublime in its skill and ferocious in its intent, and if you didn’t fall in love with her in that moment, if you didn’t thrill at her competitive spirit and share in her righteous indignation at the unfairness of it all (that last part earned her a suspension from FIFA), if you didn’t acknowledge you had just witnessed something pure and beautiful and elemental and Canadian, even in a loss — well, can’t help you there.

“I’m proud of that moment, that tournament, that team, and just our ability to rebound from that game against the U.S. and then somehow beat France,” Sinclair says. “I’m proud to have been a part of history for our team and our country, and I think that moment changed the sport within Canada. It’s just snowballed from there.”

By the way, whatever she says for the record, she’s still pissed.

And who would want it any other way?

SUBLIME AND FEROCIOUS
Sinclair scored all three goals in Canada's semi-final loss to the U.S. at the London Olympics in 2012

In January 2018, following a second Olympic bronze at the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016, Herdman was hired to take over Canada’s men’s national team. The members of the women’s team were as surprised as anyone when it happened. “It was a shock,” Sinclair says. “I think your initial reaction, in my head and heart, was, ‘We’re just starting something. We had more plans and more goals.’ My first thought was ‘Come on, John. You and I, we’re going to do this.’ … But then once you truly thought about it, you realized his goals ultimately didn’t end with Canada’s women’s national team. And I’m proud to have been able to help him advance. Sometimes opportunities just come up that you can’t pass up.

“And you also realize that, with John, we’d won back-to-back bronze medals. I don’t want another bronze medal.”

That last line. That’s her. That’s the steely centre.

“The thought of a Canadian being at the top of the goal-scoring charts and all of soccer is nuts. But I can't think about that right now.”

Herdman was succeeded by one of his assistants, Kenneth Heiner-Moller, a different personality. “He’s a little quieter, little calmer on the sidelines,” Sinclair says. “I feel like he’s a player’s coach. Obviously, he played at a pretty high level and just knows what it’s like to be a player and gives the players a little bit more freedom and a little bit more opportunity to express themselves. And he’s hilarious — that’s something that I don’t think comes across. He’s a good guy who cares tremendously about the players in this program. It’s been a blast to play under him for the past little bit.”

With Heiner-Moller at the helm, Canada hasn’t lost a match since last October — the final of the CONCACAF World Cup.

To the Americans. Of course.

'THE MOST TALENTED TEAM WE'VE EVER HAD'
Sinclair tempers expectations about the 2019 World Cup, but exudes confidence in herself and her side

By the time this World Cup wraps up, it is very likely that Sinclair will have put in the four goals necessary to pass Abby Wambach as the greatest international scorer in soccer history. Wambach was obviously a great, skilled and tenacious player in her own right. She is also the cartoon American — brash, cocky, combative — to Sinclair’s cartoon Canadian. To knock her off that throne would have to be particularly satisfying.

Sinclair, of course, is loath to talk about it, loath to take it as a given or to trumpet an individual achievement, but when pressed, she’ll at least acknowledge there will be a special satisfaction if she supplants an American. “I’m proud to have had the longevity that I’ve had and the ability to contribute as long as I’ve had and adapt with the game. And I don’t know, the thought of potentially a Canadian being at the top of the goal-scoring charts and all of soccer is nuts. But I can’t think about that right now.”

(One small irony: Sinclair has long made her home in the United States. She attended the University of Portland, where she was an All-American, was named the best female collegiate soccer player in the country and won a national title, and she currently plays professionally for the Thorns.)

And, after this tournament, what about the next Olympics? That next World Cup? “Those… are happening,” Sinclair says. “I’ve always planned for World Cups and Olympics and then re-evaluated afterwards.”

She can imagine a time when she’s not training, not playing, not involved the routines that have shaped most of her life. “When I am done, I’m going on vacation, and not visiting a gym for a long time. I’m going to beaches, mountains, anywhere…”

Somehow, that doesn’t sound imminent. And in the meantime, there remains unfinished business.



Designed by Sasha Barkans. Edited by Evan Rosser.

Photo Credits

Maddie Meyer/FIFA via Getty; Andy Jacobsohn/AP; Alex Grimm/Getty; Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty; Cole Burston/CP.