Time does not stand still.
Four years ago, Canadians were grateful for the fact. At the Women’s World Cup in Germany, a tournament approached with high hopes, with their best player Christine Sinclair at the peak of her powers, the Canada’s national team finished winless, gutted, and dead last. They and their supporters, shell-shocked, couldn’t move on fast enough.
But one year later came that magic summer at the London Games, a time you wanted to freeze, to preserve, to savour. Some good play plus some good luck and good bounces — every successful team needs a few of those — and that heroic performance against the Yanks that was wrought of pure will and Sinclair’s remarkable skill. Never has third place seemed like more of a triumph.
Coming into the 2015 Women’s World Cup on home soil, Canadians were still happily wallowing in those memories. Seeing so many familiar faces on the squad, they could dream of a repeat, dream that it could all play out perfectly again.
But this is a different year, a different tournament.
And it isn’t just us.
Brazil has already gone home and Marta looked nothing like the player once hyped as a female Pele. The Americans, though they still might win it, are a shadow of their former selves, and their star Abby Wambach can’t dominate a match anymore. Japan, the champions in 2011, has had to fight for every victory.
Maybe the best team, certainly the prettiest to watch — France — is on the sidelines, victims of some bad fortune, and of the fact that German sides never lose on penalties.
And Canada? They are eighth in the FIFA rankings, made it to the final eight, and anyone who had actually paid attention to their results far from the spotlight over the past two years would have been surprised if they had progressed any further. England, the team that knocked them out on Saturday, had been beating Canada consistently, albeit in close games — the one exception being a Canada win in a friendly in Hamilton on the eve of this tournament.
But even that assessment is a little bit flattering. Canada benefited from a very good draw. They were on the easier side of the bracket. By defeating only teams ranked below them, they could have reached the semifinals.
They couldn’t do that because their golden generation of players are past it — including Sinclair, who played well in the quarterfinal, but who can no longer approach her own gold standard. There is some promising young talent, but not enough to have turned the roster over since the last World Cup. The team is a mish-mash, hard-working but mistake-prone, thin in key positions, life and death against everyone they played in the tournament.
You could sense a tinge of desperation in John Herdman’s relentless positivity during the build up and through Canada’s early struggles. Acutely aware of how this same core fell apart emotionally in Germany under his predecessor Carolina Morace, it was as though he knew he couldn’t risk a discouraging word.
He was hoping, along with most of a nation, that lightning would strike, that the magic would return, that it would somehow all fall into place.
Two terrible errors handed the English an early lead that they would not relinquish. Sinclair got one back late in the first half but the emotional lift that provided wasn’t enough. Watching England kill off the final 45 minutes while doing its best to protect a nervous backup keeper who had been forced to step in for an injured (and pretty awful) starter, was painful.
The names on the back of the jerseys — Sinc, Tancredi, Matheson — were the names of those Olympic heroes, but they didn’t look nearly the same.
Before we convene again for an Olympic tournament or another World Cup, most, if not all of them will be gone.
There has been legitimate hope generated by the few young players to crack the squad. But this isn’t women’s hockey. The emergence of a generational talent like Sinclair in this country is a one off, a happy fluke. She has been extraordinary and without her, things could get ordinary, fast.
We’ll always have 2012, and we’ll always have the memory of a World Cup in Canada, of a country living and dying with women’s football for a couple of weeks.
But the clock hasn’t stopped ticking.