Featured image: Sinclair clutches her Olympic Gold Medal as part of Celebration Tour pregame festivities in Ottawa, October 26. Flickr/Canada Soccer
The View from the Mountaintop
Christine Sinclair has reached the peak of women’s soccer glory. A look back on one of the most influential careers in Canadian sports, and a look ahead to her possible future.
In the 86th minute of the Tokyo 2020 Women’s Gold Medal final, the greatest footballer of all time was subbed off for 20-year-old striker Jordyn Huitema. It took the IOC broadcast feed a few moments to catch up to the moment, since the screen’s attention was on 23-year-old emerging superstar Jessie Fleming walking to the touchline to grab a swig from a sport bottle and instructions from coach Bev Priestman.
Finally, we saw the red jersey with “12” in large white letters, hunched down to hug Desiree Scott. The Burnaby, BC native with more international goals than Messi, Ronaldo or anyone else turned to the touchline, gave Huitema a quick hug and Fleming a friendly “low-five,” and found her well-deserved respite on the Canada bench. Christine Sinclair had given everything to take Les Rouges to the mountaintop: now she had to watch, inspire and cheer her younger teammates to climb the rest of the way.
The official count may be quantified at 16 honours for club and country, but her impact on the game will be felt for generations, beginning with the next one. The time is ripe to consider what that impact might look like, since her ability to affect the game on the field isn’t what it once was.
At the height of her career, her on-field impact was utterly dominant. She first hit the pitch for the full national team at an invitational tournament in 2000. The energetic 16-year-old kid would become one of the most decorated athletes in Canadian history, garnering countless Canadian and International individual accolades.
But Sinclair has always been team first. Karina LeBlanc, former national side teammate turned CBC analyst, highlighted the 38-year-old trailblazer’s ability to make the whole squad better. “We all know her as the world’s greatest scorer,” LeBlanc said as part of CBC’s Olympic coverage, “but I think once she’s on the field she attracts the attention that creates space for other players.”
Key for LeBlanc is Sinclair’s flexibility. She added, “whether she’s the one sitting up top and scoring goals or being fed the ball to, or coming and taking the ball and creating space and creating chances for her teammates.”
The results are undeniable. She won two NCAA Championships with the University of Portland Pilots, followed by three club championships in previous iterations of American women’s pro soccer. When the National Women’s Soccer League was founded in 2013, Sinclair returned to the Rose City to help build the Portland Thorns into a juggernaut. The Thorns have won seven trophies over the past nine years, including two NWSL Championships.
Pride of place goes to her accomplishments with the national team: a Concacaf Championship in 2010, Olympic Bronze Medals in 2012 and 2016, and the pinnacle, Olympic Gold in this past summer’s Tokyo 2020 Games. Former coach John Herdman, speaking to Kristina Rutherford for a Sportsnet “Big Read,” placed Sinclair at the centre of Canada’s success. “You’ve got to build a plan on the players around Sinclair so they can take attention away from her,” he said just before the 2015 World Cup on home soil.
Herdman’s predecessor Carolina Morace expressed a similar sentiment when Sinclair played through her now-famous broken nose during the 2011 World Cup in Germany. Morace was asked what she would do if her captain had to sit out the rest of the tournament. She went for the jugular: “How a person can ask something so stupid. It’s like, ‘Messi is injured, what’s your plan?’ He is the plan…. That’s the player,” she exclaimed. “If you know football, if you have some basic knowledge, you know that you can’t replace some players. You can’t. You miss her, that’s it.”
A decade later, current coach Bev Priestman is likely looking toward a new plan that no longer places Sinclair at the centre. As mentioned above, she simply isn’t the dominant force that she once was. LeBlanc is right to name her flexibility as an asset, but we should also consider that she switched to a supporting role as a self-aware adaptation to the effects of age.
Former teammate and current broadcaster Clare Rustad commented on the effect Sinclair’s reduced offensive output has had on Canada’s national team. “It’s no secret that goals have been difficult to come by for this team,” she said to analyst John Molinaro after their timid 1-1 draw against hosts Japan at the beginning of the Olympic tournament. “There were a lot of positive things [in this game], and there was some nice buildup play. But it’s that willingness to be the one who shoots that was missing.”
Sinclair used to be that lethal finisher, always willing to take the shot, and hitting the back of the net more than anyone else. But in the 2021 Olympic opener, she scored in the sixth minute but never came close to adding a second, while Japan equalized in the 84th to end the game 1-1.
After that game, Molinaro asked, “where are the goals going to come from for Canada?” The Gold Medal final began to suggest an answer. Nineteen minutes before Sinclair was subbed off, Fleming stepped up to the penalty spot, and with ice in her veins blasted home the equalizing goal that sent the game to Extra Time and Penalties. The London, Ontario phenom also scored Canada’s first goal in the pivotal penalty shootout, which was clinched by 20-year-old Texas Longhorns Senior Julia Grosso of Vancouver.
Fleming has hit the ground running with Chelsea of England’s Women’s Super League this year, scoring three goals and adding two assists in the first eight games. Janine Beckie, Adriana Leon and Deanne Rose are also gaining valuable professional experience in England, while Huitema and veteran winger Ashley Lawrence are plying their trade in France. Grosso has just signed for Italy’s Juventus, and will make her pro debut in January. Closer to home, Nichelle Prince and Evelyne Viens are settling in nicely in the NWSL south of the border.
This European and American experience paid off in Tokyo, but Sinclair sees a farther horizon from the mountaintop. “The next step is we have to get a professional league and teams in Canada,” she declared to CBC with the Gold Medal freshly draped around her neck. “I think it’s unacceptable that the Olympic champions don’t have a professional environment in Canada. That’s the next task.”
Sinclair still plays an integral on-field role in Portland, where LeBlanc and former Canada teammate Rhian Wilkinson are joining her as their next General Manager and Head Coach respectively. But when the sad day of Sinclair’s retirement eventually comes, we all hope that she’ll lead the growth of Canadian women’s professional soccer in an off-field role. We don’t know what that role will look like, and I suspect neither does she. All we need to know is what LeBlanc has already reminded us: Christine Sinclair is “a complete player…. whatever the team needs her to be.”