Canada’s women: Winning one for all of us

There have only been two instances in which I’ve been able to see Jack Warner‘s face without feeling the bile rising up in the back of my throat. On both occasions, he’s handing a Gold Cup trophy to the captain of a Canadian national team.

Ten years ago, it was Jason de Vos. And last night, it was Christine Sinclair.

Ten years ago, it was a fortuitous coin flip that allowed the men to progress into the knockout stages of the tournament. Last week, the biggest upset in women’s soccer history (the Mexicans’ semi-final defeat of the #1-ranked USA) gave Big Red an easier path to the trophy than they were anticipating.

Ten years ago, the men’s national team had high expectations after the recent appointment of a well-regarded international manager (Holger Osieck). Today, the women have Carolina Morace.

But that’s where the similarities end. Whereas the men’s Gold Cup success never translated over into World Cup qualifying, and dissension within the dressing room helped contribute to Osieck’s departure, I can’t help but think that this women’s side may be at the precipice of a defining moment in Canadian soccer.

The women’s national team truly functions as a team, more so than any men’s national team ever could. The unfortunate reality, right now, is that the club situation for most female players (even those as the highest levels of the international game) is usually tenuous at best. Women’s Professional Soccer, the two-year-old league in which international stars like Sinclair and Marta ply their trade, is reportedly in immediate financial jeopardy.

So for women with the requisite talent to represent their countries, the national team becomes their default team. Their true teammates are the ladies who may play for a different club, or on a different continent, or at a university, or (outside of the national side) not at all.

To put things in perspective, the Canadian women’s national team has played 15 matches this year, with three more scheduled. The men’s national team will finish the year having played six times.

Paul Stalteri recently became our all-time games-played leader on the men’s side. He has 84 caps to his name, at 33 years of age. Meanwhile, four members of the Gold Cup-winning women’s squad have more caps than that (Sinclair, Kara Lang, Diana Matheson, Rhian Wilkinson). Karina LeBlanc isn’t far behind, with 82. Hell, Brittany Timko, who wasn’t in the squad but is still only 25, has 94.

The addition of Morace to the mix has only made this sense of cohesion stronger. All comments I’ve heard coming from players have been positive about the on-field tactical approach and off-field attitudinal approach brought by the former Italian striker. A shout of “You’re our hero, Carolina!” (sounded like LeBlanc) could be heard coming out of the post-game celebrations being held by the Canadian ladies.

Any man who suits up for his country is doing it out of a sincere desire to succeed in that uniform. But male players are often chastised for accepting a national-team call in certain circumstances, as pundits question the potential impact upon the fellow’s club career. While winning the World Cup is the ultimate prize for any footballer (explaining the painfully pragmatic approach many players take to determining their national allegiance), men can fall back on the dream of hoisting a reputable and famous domestic trophy if those World Cup aspirations don’t quite pan out.

At this stage in the evolution of women’s soccer, though, trophies like the World Cup and Gold Cup are, by necessity, the pinnacle of achievement — and in many cases, the only benchmark of achievement. I’m sure Sinclair was pleased that her team, FC Gold Pride, won the WPS title this year… but how long that can that sense of joy last when the future of the club, and the entire league, is in question?

So the women ardently, passionately and fully commit themselves to representing their nation. Suiting up for Canada isn’t seen as a duty, or a chore, or a side project. This is a team that, for large portions of the year, trains and plays together, presumably developing a sense of camaraderie comparable to that of a club team (perhaps even stronger, as the players know their teammate won’t be traded away in the off-season).

Yeah, maybe we’re still big fish in a small pond. Mexico’s upset of the Americans notwithstanding, the playing field is still vastly unequal, on a global scale, when it comes to women’s soccer. There are, of course, plenty of cultural and socio-economic reasons behind this (for instance, the fact that in many soccer-mad countries, the prevailing social wisdom is still that women are meant to cook, clean and service their husbands, and not much else).

But times change. North Korea showed this year that their success in 2008 (winning the inaugural FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup) was no fluke, as they narrowly missed out on making the finals in this year’s tournament (ultimately finishing fourth). The rest of the world is beginning to catch up. We can’t rest on our laurels, complacent in the knowledge that Canada has traditionally done well in women’s soccer… since, y’know, you can’t bank on tradition forever.

That’s why, whatever its faults, the Canadian Soccer Association must be lauded for landing Morace as the women’s national team coach. Some myopic nitwits will say the money she’s being paid would be better spent on hiring a high-profile international coach for the men’s national team. These people are idiots.

Anyone not beholden to a staggering level of naivete or ignorance is fully aware that we will never see the Canadian men’s national team win the World Cup. I’m about as gung-ho a Canadian soccer supporter as you’re likely to find, and yet all I hope is that I’ll get a chance to see them score a goal in the World Cup before I die.

The women’s national team, on the other hand, could realistically win the World Cup. It’s much newer, much smaller and lacks the global prestige as the men’s tournament, of course. But the sight of Sinclair hoisting the Women’s World Cup trophy would, hopefully, finally put to rest some of the more tired cliches about Canada simply being no good at the sport.

A whole generation of young girls would have heroes to look up to… and to them, soccer would make the transition from “something fun to kill an hour on the weekend with” to a real, viable long-term goal. Plus, the exposure could shine a spotlight on the failings on the men’s side, and in youth development. “Look what the women’s team did. Kids’ soccer is worth investing in. Also, why the hell can’t the men do this? What’s so fundamentally flawed in our development system that there can be such a glaring discrepancy between the performances of our two senior national teams?”

OK, I’m making quite a few assumptions about the impact of an event that hasn’t even taken place yet.

But for all that people grouse about what’s wrong with Canadian soccer, the women’s national team — 2010 Gold Cup champions — have shown, and will hopefully continue to show, all that can be right.

And for that, surely, they deserve our attention and our support.

Congratulations, ladies.

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9 Responses to “Canada’s women: Winning one for all of us”

  1. Great article. Womens team deserved this win. Completely dominating this tournament going 5-0, outscoring the opponents 17-0 and they should have been credited with more. This team is the best WNT I have ever seen play the game, and they played it beautifully. Don’t think the final was their best performance overall but nonetheless they got it done. Morace should be every Canadian soccer fans hero with the style she has introduced to the program. And to think this team has potential gives me goosebumps. Things like corner kicks (although they have worked on some cleaver plays) and free kicks could be improved. Playing in Brazil in December will give them the opportunity to work improve on these things before going into residency next year to work on their weak sports and further strengthen their game. Oh man this team gets me soo excited. I can not wait to see them perform in Germany…and to think possibly a WC without USA.
    Congrats ladies! you have made us all proud!

    • You’re right, it is scary (in a good way, of course) to see how far the team has come in 18 months under Morace, and I’m honestly convinced that, with another nine months until the World Cup, they could seriously make some noise. As in, they could contend to win the whole tournament.

  2. […] World Cup, CanWNT, kara lang, fc gold pride. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed You can leave a response, or trackback from your own […]

  3. This team better be paraded across the country with that massive trophy, going to every major center in every province to speak in front of every community and youth soccer association. Our young girls need to be made aware of our success, of the opportunities they have. Their parents need to realize that their daughters should be encouraged to keep playing the game into high school, when most kids drop out. They need to see that the girls’ game can be a serious endeavor. Honestly what would it take to set up a tour for our CONCACAF Championship Women’s Nats?

  4. I would argue that our top men and women are roughly at the same level of development. Soccer development in Canada is basically amateur in nature (in all senses of the word). In the case of the women, this is actually pretty damn good in the world game, for reasons mentioned above. For the men, it tends to lag behind many other nations.

    A change of attitude to something approaching hockey (I can’t believe I am endorsing that, but that’s why we win) is necessary before professionalizing actual youth programs across the country.

    • You’re right, youth development is equally amateurish for both genders, but we’ve been able to get away with it on the women’s side due, in part, to the sheer volume of young female players we had to choose from. But as other nations begin to catch up on the women’s side, an overhaul of youth development is going to be critical if we’re going to hope to compete at all.

  5. An inspiring article, inspired by an inspiring performance. Five straight shutout wins … yikes!! I believe that is called absolute domination.

    While reading, aside from grinning from ear to ear (Big Red make us proud to be Canadian, don’t they?), I couldn’t help dwelling your point about the number of games the MNT get to play … a real mix of emotions there.

    You provided real winner of an image with your Men’s World Cup wish. I picture you (or my version of you) holding up a huge photograph of the first ever CanMNT World Cup goal and parading around as if hoisting a trophy.

    Oops. There go those mixed emotions again.

  6. I’m so glad to see a thumbs up to our women’s program, and specifically to the women on the team deserve “bravo”. If there is money to be spent on soccer in Canada, a big investment on the women’s side seems more useful for fitness, for grassroots growth, and for international results!

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