National dejection to elation in 100 hours
Four days of the most gut-wrenching, anger-producing and, ultimately, rewarding soccer ever played by a Canadian national team. It was the half-week that soccer culture changed for the positive in this country, and we’re noticing it in the encouraging play, finally, of the men’s team which has realized that it’s preferable to play the game with the ball than without it, and in the positive cyberspace reaction the impending Canadian Premier League is receiving. And, of course, in the unconditional love afforded the Canadian women’s national team to this very day. Five years ago next week — from Aug. 6 to 9, 2012 — the Canadian women, which only the year before had lost all three games in the World Cup and been outscored 7-1, rebounded to dictate the pace of what most soccer experts consider the greatest women’s game soccer game ever played: the controversial 4-3 loss to the U.S. Then four days later, they fought off emotional destruction, brutal fatigue and imbalance of play on the field, to win Canada’s first Olympic medal in a traditional team sport in 76 years. “After the World Cup I thought we were done,” Ancaster’s Melissa Tancredi told The Spectator after Canada beat France 1-0 to win the bronze medal, despite being on the wrong end of a 25-4 margin — I’m not making that up — in shots at net. I’m often asked about the greatest games I’ve ever seen in person. Usually I mention the 1989 Grey Cup, but the Canada-U.S. women’s soccer game of 2012 is right behind it. It was played at Old Trafford and lived up to the elevated reputation of the home of Manchester United. Since the U.S. had usually handled Canada fairly easily, I thought the highlight of the day would be when a quartet of us journalists had our pictures taken pre-game in front of the statues of the Holy Trinity: United’s Bobby Charlton, George Best and Denis Law. Nice picture, but, oh, how wrong I was. Christine Sinclair, who had a hat trick, played the finest game in Canadian soccer history, by either sex, with the first two goals set up by Tancredi, who at one point had led the entire Olympics in scoring. The physical Tancredi also intimidated the Americans to the point that the red, white and blue hatred of her was palpable. But I also give the eventual gold medallists credit for rallying each time Sinclair put them in a hole. They tied the game three times, although it was the third which resonates in the Hall of Shame … not for the players but for referee Christiana Pederson of Norway. Pederson had been questionable (and that’s being nice) all game. But with Canada up 3-2, she unbelievably called Canadian keeper Erin McLeod for holding the ball too long before releasing it. An indirect free kick near the spot was awarded to the U.S. That kick was driven right at Canadian defender Marie-Eve Nault’s hand and U.S. star Abby Wambach was awarded a penalty kick that she converted to send the game into extra time, where the Americans won. Normally, if you can’t get out of the way — as had happened in the American box only a few minutes earlier — you aren’t penalized for such a hand ball. Even U.S. coach Pia Sundhage said she had never seen the holding-it-too-long penalty called. When the game ended on Alex Morgan’s header after 33 minutes of extra time that should never have been played, the emotionally bereft Canadians would not leave the field. It was the opposite of fleeing the scene of a crime. “I feel robbed, that’s all I can say,” is what Tancredi said, and then said some other critical stuff, too. Sinclair said a lot more and was eventually suspended. The fact that the suspension was to be served after the Games was a tacit admission by FIFA that the officiating had been a farce. That cost Canada a berth in the gold medal game, and put them into the bronze medal game in Covington against France, who’d clobbered them 4-0 in the World Cup. The Canadians were mentally exhausted and Tancredi, so spent from her brilliant effort against the U.S. that she could barely move in the second half, was replaced after 78 minutes. McLeod was beyond brilliant and the French had some bad luck or the game would have been lost long before Canada’s only sortie into the French end in the second half. That came near the end, with extra time looming. Then five-foot-nothing Diana Matheson of Oakville scored the biggest, most memorable goal in Canadian soccer annals and they shockingly won the bronze that felt like gold. The Spectator’s description: “For the second time in four days a Canadian game ended with one team shrieking in disbelieving joy and another writhing on the turf in agony. Only this time, it was not the Canadians with their hands clawing at their heads in horror.” Tancredi said that as Matheson moved up into the play to score, “I freaked.” And so did an entire country. Unlike four days earlier, in a good way.
Veteran Spectator columnist Steve Milton has pretty much seen it all in his 40 years covering sports around the world and, in Being There, he relives special moments of those stories, from the inside out, every Friday. If there’s a memorable sporting event you want Steve to write about, let him know at firstname.lastname@example.org. Chances are he was there.
Christine Sinclair celebrates her third goal of the game against the U.S. at Olympics in that fateful game played almost five years ago.
Shock and disbelief for Sinclair and Ancaster’s Melissa Tancredi after the U.S. extra-time victory