Belanger reignites her passion
Quebec player hopes to inspire young women
Josee Belanger has fallen in love with soccer again.
Belanger was five years old when she first started to play “the beautiful game” in Coaticook, a small town in southeastern Quebec with a population of just more than 9,000.
Despite coming from a small town and being only 5-foot-3, Belanger made her debut with the Canadian national team as an 18-year-old in 2004 and was part of the Canadian team that won a gold medal at the 2004 CONCACAF Women’s Under-20 Championship.
She won another gold medal with Canada at the 2010 CONCACAF Championship and helped her country qualify for the 2011 Women’s World Cup in Germany. But Belanger couldn’t play at the 2011 World Cup because of a severe ankle injury and Canada finished in last place at the 16-team tournament, losing all three games in the group stage while scoring only one goal and allowing seven.
Belanger also missed the 2012 London Olympics because of the injury and could only watch as Canada won a bronze medal.
She had lost her love for soccer and decided it was time to get on with her life.
“At that point, with all the injuries and everything, I needed to get a break,” the 29-year-old recalled.
“I accepted a job with a soccer club in Sherbrooke, where I was coaching little girls.”
But new Canadian coach John Herdman wanted Belanger on his team for this year’s World Cup. He called her home in Coaticook and tried to explain to her parents — who don’t speak English — in his British accent that he wanted their daughter to play soccer again.
When Herdman first spoke with Belanger directly, she also had a hard time understanding the Brit’s accent.
“For two years, John was trying to bring me back,” said Belanger, who is now fluently bilingual. “But I was like, ‘Oh, no, it’s over for me. I’m going on to real life, working, and maybe have a family.’”
Herdman refused to give up and continued to call Belanger and even flew to Quebec to attend a coaches’ conference he knew she would be at.
In the meantime, Belanger had a new boyfriend and still had bad memories of the state of Team Canada following the 2011 World Cup. Captain Christine Sinclair has described it as a “broken team” at that point, adding: “It had lost its fun.”
But Herdman was changing the culture of the team and wanted Belanger to be part of it. He wouldn’t give up.
She rejoined Team Canada in November 2013.
“Herdman was so much better and more positive and more professional,” Belanger said. “The team spirit was also way better … everybody was actually connected to each other and everyone was super happy to be there.”
Herdman knew what he was doing and Belanger paid him back big time last Sunday when she scored the only goal in Canada’s 1-0 victory over Switzerland in the World Cup Round of 16 in front of 53,855 fans at BC Place.
“There was a lot of emotion that was just out there,” Belanger said about her goal celebration during a phone interview from Vancouver, where Canada is preparing for Saturday’s quarter-final game against England. “It was pretty intense. I was just so happy.”
Belanger, who is a natural forward, showed her versatility by playing fullback for the first time in her life during Canada’s three group-stage games because of injuries to Rhian Wilkinson and Marie-Eve Nault. Belanger was back at forward when she scored against Switzerland, with Wilkinson returning to the lineup.
“I think it’s just exciting what she brings to the team,” Herdman said. “She’s got a pure heart. She is a team-centred person. She’s grown in confidence greatly over these last five months and we’re starting to see her true personality. It’s just wonderful to watch the transformation, particularly in this World Cup.”
Belanger credits her boyfriend — Roch Proteau — for encouraging her to “follow her dream” and she hopes to inspire the young girls she coached in Sherbrooke.
“I want to be like a role model … someone who actually went to achieve her goals and dreams,” said Belanger, who has a degree in kinesiology from Universite de Sherbrooke.
Belanger plans to start a soccer camp for girls this summer and travel across Quebec with it. She also hopes to live the Olympic experience with Team Canada at next year’s Games in Brazil before hanging up her soccer shoes.
Meanwhile, an entire country will be cheering for Belanger to score another goal in Saturday’s quarter-final game and she knows the town of Coaticook — including her parents — will be watching.
“Because it’s a small town everyone knows each other, so I think they’re pretty proud,” Belanger said.