09 Aug Why Canadian Soccer Gold Is the Best Possible Outcome for Women’s Soccer
On Friday, the Canadian women’s national soccer team battled Sweden through 120 minutes of play and six nail-biting rounds of penalty kicks to win their first Olympic gold medal with a score of 3-2. It’s been a long time coming. After winning back-to-back bronze medals in 2012 and 2016—and enduring a surprising loss to the United States in the London semifinals—the sport’s lowest-key superpower finally has some championship hardware.
If today’s result came as a shock, maybe you haven’t been paying attention. Canada and Sweden have spent the last two weeks delivering standout performance after standout performance, playing the best soccer of their careers and ruthlessly punishing everyone in their path who failed to do the same. Nobody else did both, including marquee teams, like the Netherlands and the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team (USWNT), who were expected to win big. The Netherlands—finalists in the 2019 World Cup—scored 23 goals during the tournament, but couldn’t beat the U.S. to advance to the semifinals. And for their part, the USWNT didn’t look like the winningest team in women’s soccer history. They simply didn’t play as well as their opponents, so they lost their chance to win gold and took home bronze instead.
But this is a good thing. International women’s soccer tournaments have only existed for about 30 years, and in that time, few teams have meaningfully or consistently challenged the United States. (I would know—I grew up idolizing the USWNT and have obsessively watched just about every game they’ve played since the 1996 Olympics.) Nowhere is this more obvious than at the Games. The 2020 Olympics are only the seventh to feature women’s soccer, and the U.S. has won a medal in six of them: Four golds, one silver, and now a bronze.
From the jump, though, it was obvious that predictability wouldn’t be an issue in Tokyo, which brought a new sense of excitement to the competition. At no point did any of us have a single clue how a given match would turn out. You may have guessed that Zambia would lose their Group F match against the Netherlands, but did you predict a 10-3 final score with a hat trick each from Barbra Banda and Vivianne Miedema? How about that 4-4 banger between China and Zambia, featuring a second Banda hat trick? (Don’t sleep on Barbra Banda.) Maybe you had a feeling that Vivianne Miedema would win the Golden Boot, but did you think she’d do it by scoring 10 goals in her first Olympics—as many as soccer great Carli Lloyd has scored in four? Probably not, which is exactly why this tournament was so much fun. Watching young players announce themselves to the world is always a joy, and this year’s standouts were especially impressive. Wherever their blossoming careers take them, fans will surely follow.
Wild upsets and outrageous goal tallies are always fun, but in this tournament, they were also hugely significant. In a sport that’s been so thoroughly dominated by Team USA for so long, they were a clear sign that, at long last, the rest of the world is starting to catch up. Sure, this isn’t the first time an underdog has won Olympic gold, but as someone who’s followed women’s soccer for as long as it’s been on TV, I’m telling you—it feels different this time.
So many moments from the Tokyo Games will stick with me for a long time, but I keep coming back to the turning point in the U.S.-Canada semifinal: Jessie Fleming’s winning penalty kick against Team U.S.A. Watching 38-year-old Christine Sinclair—a living legend who’s scored more international goals than any person alive or dead—put ego aside and hand the ball to her 23-year-old teammate felt significant. It was a brilliant, purely pragmatic decision from a brilliant, purely pragmatic player, but the symbolism was impossible to ignore. By placing the ball in Fleming’s hands, Sinclair told the world she’d placed her full confidence in the next generation—and did it all without saying a word.
When Fleming absolutely buried the ball in the side netting past A.D. Franch’s outstretched fingertips, I felt the power balance of women’s soccer shift in real time. When the same exact thing happened in the final against Sweden, even Hedvig Lindahl knew there was no stopping Jessie Fleming; clearly, so did Christine Sinclair. This may be Canada’s first gold medal, but something tells me it won’t be their last. I can’t wait to see what happens next.
Credit: Source link