What I love more than any sport is seeing Canada come together when our national team is playing. Usually, this is for one of our hockey teams. You know them. They’re the ones who have won all the gold medals at the last two Winter Olympics. But this time, 54 thousand fans crowded BC Place to watch our women’s soccer team play England in the quarter finals.
Yes, there were a lot of fans at the game wearing Team Canada hockey jerseys and hats. If we have specialty clothing for cheering on our team, it’s probably a hockey jersey. But I saw even more soccer jerseys. I saw girls and women wearing Christine Sinclair’s number 12 on their backs. I saw girls wearing their own numbers on their own team jerseys, wearing their striped socks pulled up to their knees, even in the near 30 degree sun.
54 thousand fans for a sports game, and I swear to you, almost all of them were women. The men who were there, almost all of them were dads.
There were a handful of USA fans, making the easy trip north across the border. I even spotted a family wearing green Mexico shirts. The English fans made themselves known, most of them with the St. George’s cross wrapped around their shoulders or painted on their faces.
When the men play their World Cup, I’m an England fan, too. The Canadian men’s team has only qualified once for the tournament, in 1986; most of our players claim their parents’s citizenship for a better chance on a better team. Canadians during the World Cup, we cheer for our parents’s countries. For me, that’s England, through my dad, who came here when he was 11. My brothers and I grew up watching hockey, not soccer, though we played the game as kids. It’s a cheap game to play. Cheaper than hockey, anyway. You need special shoes, but not much more than that. Shin pads are nice, a uniform, a ball.
Pick up any two objects to mark a goal line, and start kicking the ball around. That’s soccer. That’s all you need. The game I saw yesterday was a little more than that, but not much more. The women on this team have been playing together for a long time. They’re friends; they’re family. The core of them, the veterans, have been together since the World Cup in 2003, where they came in fourth place.
They were 19, 20, 21 then. They’re 31, 32, 33 now. They leave the 2015 Women’s World Cup in 6th place, which is a damn sight better than they managed last time around. In 2011, Canada finished dead last, not even making it out of their group. That tournament was their turning point. That defeat drove them to a bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics.
It nearly drove them all the way into the semi-finals here. I’m so sad for those women who won’t get another chance. Our new stars–Kadeisha Buchanan, Ashley Lawrence, and Adriana Leon–will carry the team onwards. But some have already started to say goodbye. Karina LeBlanc, our 35-year-old keeper, has announced her retirement from the international game.
With the Pan-Am Games in just a few weeks and the Olympics next summer, we can hope a few of the veterans will hold on a little longer. One more chance. It’s almost too much to pass up, isn’t it? Look how close we came yesterday.
My brother texted me after the game and said, with a little more distance than I could manage, because he was at home watching on TV, not in the stadium, “10 min in and right over the bar. Would have changed the whole game.” I said that, except for the first fifteen minutes, they played so hard. But I was wrong.
I was nervous, right from the start, seeing the mistakes more than the chances. Big games like this, they tie my stomach into knots. When the Canadian women’s hockey team played the USA in the gold medal final in Sochi, I spent the entire extended game pacing to one end of the house and back to the TV. But sitting this close to the field in BC Place, there’s nowhere to go. We’re stuck in this together.
They played so damn hard, right from the start. Then the goal at 11 minutes happened. I was sitting at the England end. I saw it coming. I was shouting, “No, no, no,” the whole time. Sophie Schmidt lost the ball, turning funny and nearly tripping. Then it was Lauren Sesselmann who couldn’t keep her feet straight. Then it was an easy kick from England, and Erin McLeod couldn’t keep the ball out of the net.
It was bad, but three minutes later, everything got worse. Three minutes was all that separated Canada from a place in the semi-finals and a shot at the podium. We celebrated a bronze medal in London like it was gold. I stood and clapped for long minutes after England won because I needed Canada to know how much we care. Sixth place sucks. But the game, the summer sun, the cheers and tears, our country, my city, this team–it felt so good.
I sat beside a women wearing the exact same shirt as me. On the other side was two girls, USA fans with red, white, and blue streamers in their hair. I sat in front of a row of 6-year-olds, who cheered Canada harder than anyone else and proclaimed, “Our team is the goodest.” I saw rainbow Pride flags, and we sang along to Little Mix’s “Salute”, an anthem for the World Cup. I got a selfie with the snowy owl mascot, Shuéme. I ate poutine. Even the train ride home was pleasant, despite the heat. A good day.
We didn’t win, but there is nothing like the feeling of celebrating a goal surrounded by 54 thousand other people who know what it means. After she scored, Christine Sinclair lifted her arms to say, “Get up, Canada. Stand up tall.” Don’t worry, Sincy. We were already standing.