RHODES: Christine Sinclair’s sendoff was an emotional end to a truly magnificent chapter

As the red number 12 lit up on the fourth official’s substitution board in the 12th minute of the second half of Canada’s match against Australia on Tuesday night, the crowd at BC Place rose to its feet once again.

Nearly 50,000 sets of eyes turned toward one person — someone who usually hates to be the centre of attention, but this was no normal circumstance. This was the moment — one that had to happen eventually. Not that that comforted the eyes that began to well up as thunderous applause started to reverberate around the stadium.

This was the end of an era.

BC Place wasn’t BC Place on Tuesday night, of course; it was Christine Sinclair Place, and this was the reason why. Sinclair’s international career with Canada spanned 24 years, 331 appearances, and a world-record 190 goals. Alongside that are three Olympic medals — one of them gold — six World Cup appearances, 14 Canadian Player of the Year titles, and countless other accolades and awards.

Christine Sinclair is not one of the greatest international footballers of all time, she is the greatest. Here she was in the stadium temporarily renamed after her, soaking in the moment as she walked off the pitch for the final time in a Canadian uniform, with the largest crowd ever for a women’s international friendly match in Canada ensuring that she felt the love and appreciation of an entire nation.

There were hugs, lots of them, as teammates and coaches swarmed Sinclair as she made her way off the pitch. The Australian team were applauding as well, with the players and coaches on the bench rising to their feet to salute the player that has contributed like few others have to the advancement of the sport in this country, and around the world. There were also tears, in Vancouver and from coast to coast.

Red and white flags, the same ones she represented with pride for so many years, waved all around her. The moment had finally arrived, and it was an emotional end to a truly magnificent chapter in the life of one of Canada’s greatest-ever athletes.

Christine Sinclair walks off the pitch for the final time in a Canada kit. (Photo: Canada Soccer)

Next to the red number 12 on the substitution board was a green number 13, belonging to Sophie Schmidt. It was the same number 13 that Sinclair wore as she took to the pitch for warmups on Tuesday — a tribute to her longtime teammate, while everyone else wore shirts with the number 12, honouring their captain.

Sinclair and Schmidt, as well as former national team goalkeeper Erin McLeod, were all celebrated on Tuesday night for the enormous impacts they made on Canadian soccer. This match was supposed to be the sendoff for Christine Sinclair, but she was never going to let it be about just Christine Sinclair.

Just as they did in London and Tokyo, on home soil and around the world — they were going to do this together.

Schmidt had originally retired from international duty after this summer’s Women’s World Cup — a tournament that came to an abrupt end with a 4-0 thrashing at the hands of the co-host Australians. She was persuaded to accept one final call-up in December and enjoy a proper goodbye.

A victory over the Matildas, this time on Canadian soil for the second time in a week, felt like a much better ending for another one of Canada’s most loyal servants — second only to Sinclair in terms of appearances for her country. That they were substituted for each other, and could share that moment together with thousands of fans cheering them on, could not have been drawn up any better.

The scenes in Vancouver on Tuesday night  — the seas of red, the number 12 on the backs of thousands shirts, and a large crowd of friends and family in the stands — was the sendoff that Sinclair deserved.

As Celine Dion’s “The Power of Love” echoed around Christine Sinclair Place (seriously, let’s consider making that temporary stadium rename permanent), and the players belted it out in a circle on the pitch, it started to sink in that this chapter of Sinclair’s remarkable career had finished being written.

Simply saying “thank you” to Christine Sinclair doesn’t feel like enough. How could two words possibly show proper appreciation to someone who has heard them thousands of times before, and will continue to for many years to come?

Her goal and appearance tallies are beyond impressive, and the medals are a physical reminder of all that she has achieved, but the impact that Christine Sinclair has had on an entire sport — both in this country and around the world — is immeasurable. Young girls and boys, including several of her teammates on the national team, have seen those successes and thought “I can do that too.”

Her name transcends sport in this country, and she is at the nucleus of bringing Canadian soccer to heights on the international stage that were once unimaginable.

In her own words, “nobody cared” when she and Schmidt joined the national team all those years ago. “To see the growth of the game and where it’s at now, the opportunities available … I never thought in my career that this was going to happen,” she added in her final pregame press conference on Sunday.

Without Sinclair’s hard work and determination, and that of the many players and teams she has led over the past 24 years, none of that growth would have been possible. Whether it was becoming an Olympic champion, breaking the sport’s all-time leading international goals record, or the work she does at the grassroots level — she has inspired an entire nation, and allowed it to dream.

The greatest international soccer player of all time is a woman from Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada, and her name is Christine Margaret Sinclair.

There will never be anyone quite like her again.

Christine Sinclair walks off the pitch for the final time in a Canada kit. (Photo: Canada Soccer)