In what was likely her final significant act at a FIFA Women’s World Cup, Christine Sinclair did exactly what anyone who knows her would have expected.
She put the team first.
Down 1-0 to Sweden in the final 25 minutes of Monday’s Round of 16 match, Canada was gifted a penalty kick after a video review by the referee. With 182 international goals under her belt, Sinclair was presumably the go-to choice to step up to the spot.
But the captain – not for the first time in her career – handed off the responsibility to Janine Beckie.
The 24-year-old, a curious omission from Canada’s roster at the 2015 tournament, aimed for the bottom corner but was brilliantly denied by Swedish goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl. That, ultimately, was as close as Canada would come to scoring.
It was undoubtedly a devastating moment for Beckie, for the team and for the entire program. Four years removed from an exciting run to the quarterfinals on home turf, a Canadian team that came into France ranked fifth in the world is now going home empty-handed.
And the question on Canadians’ minds is, no doubt, “what if?”
What if Sinclair had taken that penalty instead, and smashed it home?
We know the answer, technically: The game would have been 1-1, but there’d still be no guarantee of Canada advancing against a Swedish side that looked far more capable of generating dangerous chances on the day.
But what if – and we’re really dabbling in the hypotheticals here – Sinclair had taken the penalty, and she’d scored, and Canada had gone on to win over Sweden, possibly in extra time or on penalty kicks?
And then, and then – what if in the quarterfinals against Germany …
OK, let’s stop there.
Sinclair’s propensity to bail the team out in dramatic fashion for a very, very long time (most notably at the 2012 London Olympics) has helped Canadians build up a far-too-comfortable cognitive cushion: a willingness to dabble in Sincy-heroics-based hypotheticals rather than confronting the cold, hard reality.
Here is the cold, hard reality in this case: Canada didn’t lose to Sweden (or, for that matter, against the Netherlands in the group stage) because of officiating malfeasance or poor scheduling or some other off-field factors over which no one had any control.
Canada lost those two games because the other teams were better on the day.
While Sweden has long been a power in the women’s game, the leaps taken by the Dutch in recent years have been breathtaking. They qualified for their first-ever Women’s World Cup in 2015, won the Women’s Euro in 2017 (breaking Germany’s decades-long stranglehold on the title) and, coming up on Tuesday, could very well defeat former World Cup champions Japan in the knockout stage.
They’re far from the only European teams to take big steps forward – look at a team like Spain, who were an afterthought (even to their own federation) four years ago, but pushed the Americans to the limit in the Round of 16 on Monday.
Even within the CONCACAF region, traditionally a two-horse race between the USA and Canada, progress is being made: Mexico, despite not qualifying for France 2019, are looking stronger, while Jamaica will surely gain momentum from their first-ever appearance at a Women’s World Cup.
What does this have to do with Sinclair handing the ball off to Beckie on Monday?
Call it ham-fisted symbolism if you must, but it was as close to a literal passing of the torch as you’re going to get on a soccer field.
That’s not to say Beckie is “the next Christine Sinclair” – nobody is; not for Canada or any other nation. Sinclair will, sometime soon, break the all-time goal-scoring record and go down in history as one of the game’s greats.
But Beckie (along with the likes of Nichelle Prince, Jordyn Huitema, Deanne Rose and other attackers whose names we haven’t even learned yet) will presumably be there for the 2023 Women’s World Cup.
Sinclair will (almost certainly) not.
This loss to Sweden, while currently heartbreaking, can serve as a moment of inspiration and motivation for that generation of players, as they look ahead to more big tournaments in the Canadian red and white.
It can also, for fans and observers, serve as a wake-up call that unless Canada gets its house in order when it comes to replenishing the ranks of the women’s national team, we could very well be left behind as teams around the world continue to rapidly advance.
Yes, Sinclair scoring that penalty and bailing us out one more time would have been another addition to her very long national-team highlight reel.
But in ceding the moment to the next generation, even if it didn’t go the way anyone would have hoped, she may have – willingly or not – actually given us an even greater gift.