It’s no mystery why we cling to the memory. There’s never been a better, more satisfying bronze medal in our history, and there have been few more perfect sporting story arcs.
At the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, the Canadian women’s soccer team stole hearts and stole the show, all without reaching the top step of the podium.
In part, it had to do with the depths from which they’d come. A year earlier, at the World Cup in Germany, Canada bottomed out. The tournament started out with all kinds of high hopes, with all kinds of talk about how the team’s coach, Carolina Morace, had brought new tactical sophistication and a new technical ability to the side. It ended with three straight losses, each more dispiriting than the last, with a coach who bailed on her own players, with as much of an emotional implosion as you’re ever going to see in team sports.
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Canada finished dead last in a field of 16 nations. They weren’t just beaten. They were ruined.
Then, rising from the ashes, with John Herdman, a new coach and a sunny, positive presence, at the helm, the team qualified for the Olympics, beating Mexico in the decisive game in Vancouver. In London, they gained momentum steadily, rolling all the way to the semifinals and a match against their great rival and the sport’s consistent gold standard, the United States. The extra time loss to the Yanks with all of its extenuating circumstances, with Christine Sinclair’s hat trick and her righteous indignation, will forever be recalled as a great Canadian rallying point. And if the game against the French that actually clinched the bronze was a bit more, well, fortunate, then surely that was just karma’s way of making things even.
Canada fell in love with those women. And Canada immediately began to look forward to seeing them again, on home soil, in the biggest soccer competition this country has ever hosted.
See any red flags there? You ought to.
What that low and that high in a 12 month span proved once again is that time doesn’t stand still, in sport or anywhere else. During the interval between major soccer tournaments, the ground invariably shifts—which makes Spain’s great Euro and World Cup run from 2008 to 2012 all the more remarkable. Older players pass their peak, younger players approach theirs, formerly-great programs start to fray around the edges, while others, pushed along by a new level of commitment and new infusions of cash, make great leaps forward. That’s especially true in the women’s game, where some of the sport’s traditional men’s powers have only recently begun to take the distaff side seriously.
Canada isn’t exactly a football factory. We don’t crank out players with anything near the consistency of the U.S. Rather our best moments in women’s soccer have come largely because of emergence of some extraordinary individual talents—Charmaine Hooper back in the day, and since 2000, the nonpareil Sinclair.
Sinclair and the bronze generation of players who surround her are now almost all over 30. That’s certainly not fatal, and some may well be near or at their best. But some will be a little bit past it, which means that in order to meet the sky high expectations at home for this tournament, Canada will need the younger set—for instance, midfielders Sophie Schmidt and Kaylyn Kyle, both 26—to reach a new level.
The expanded field and the draw certainly don’t hurt. Canada should win its group with relative ease, and by doing so will be presented with another favourable match-up in the round of 16.
And after that, well, things figure to get interesting, with the possibility of a France or England in the quarterfinals, and Brazil or the defending champions Japan in the semis. The Americans? Well, there’s your dream final. And making it to the final, Herdman says, is a necessity, which is setting the bar higher than Canada has ever reached before.
Nothing wrong with shooting for the stars. Nothing wrong with exhibiting some of that newfound Canadian sports swagger. We’re not just happy to be here. As hosts, we gained automatic entry to the tournament, but this isn’t about a free pass. It’s about one last chance for the best group of female soccer players we have ever produced—and the greatest single player we may ever produce—to make history.
Just don’t count on magic.