Jordan: There are a few things you need to know about the woman we’re discussing today. First, she is on a very short list of the greatest Canadian athletes of all time. Second, she would probably never admit she belongs on that list or actually even discuss that list at all. Third, she has been on the field for some of the most heartbreaking defeats any Canadian team has ever suffered.
News Clip: France is through to the finals. A comprehensive victory over Canada. Full time in Boca. Canada null, France four.
Jordan: Finally beginning today, after almost 20 years of leading perhaps the best soccer team Canada has ever fielded, Christine Sinclair has a chance to reach heights that would have been unimaginable when she began her career. Sinclair is 36 now. She’s been Canada’s rock forever. This might be her last woman’s World Cup, and it might be Canada’s best ever chance to hoist the trophy, and it might be our last chance to appreciate a woman who has never talked much, never cared about stats, never wined about the refs, never done anything but play great soccer, and she is now poised to become perhaps the best ever at that task.
Jordan: I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, and this is The Big Story. Canada’s first game in the Women’s World Cup comes today against Cameroon, so we figured it was time to talk to Stephen Brunt of Sportsnet, who’s covered these World Cups for years. Stephen start with just who is Christine Sinclair? Where did she come from? What’s her origin story?
Stephen: Well she’s from the lower mainland of BC. She comes from a soccer playing family, two of her uncle’s played professionally with the Portland, an earlier incarnation of the Portland Timbers. Her dad played, she played as a kid and, you know, she played other sports as well. But it was a prodigy, right? She cows cap for Canada as a 16 year old. It always astounds me how you know, we’re talking about the early days of the sport in the country, like Canada didn’t have a women’s national team till 1986. You know, she played in the 95, or the 94 World Cup, right?
Jordan: What was the game like back then?
Stephen: It was….. if people are soccer people, they will understand what I’m saying here, it’s like old time English soccer like vertical so direct. Big, you know, kick it down the field and the strongest and tallest and fittest would run underneath it. It was dominated by countries that could do that, you know, played that way. But it was also dominated by countries that put money into women’s sport before other countries did. Which, you know, is a pattern we’ve seen a lot right, like early success and Olympic women’s rowing, for instance, was because we invested in it and I ain’t taking nothing away from those great athletes, but we got on that bandwagon before a lot of other countries didn’t. In soccer even a lot of traditional soccer countries declined to invest in the women’s game. There was a level of showmen ism in the soccer culture so that you know, the Brazil’s and the Spain’s and the Italy’s, they didn’t do anything in women’s soccer, but Germany did, and Norway did, and Sweden did, and we did to a degree. We were kind of early adapters in terms of women’s soccer and the Americans did after title nine, because title nine was huge right into created opportunities for collegiate athletes, so those with countries that dominated early, but that was what it was a power game, you know, a power game, a fitness game and, you know, and a size game, really strength game.
Jordan: How did Christine Sinclair make her mark on that game on this team? When did she come to…. when did Canada notice her?
Stephen: I would think, I guess that was the U 20 tournament. I can remember they changed it from U 19 to U 20 immediately after, but it was the tournament in Edmonton where the golden generation; They got to the finals lost to the Americans a recurring theme here, but played in front of 40,000 plus people in Edmonton, a Commonwealth stadium to big TV ratings. So Carl Lange, and Creedy, and Sinc you know were part of that team of this golden generation of Canadian women, the country embraced them in a way that it hadn’t… I don’t think it had embraced a soccer team, male or female before, you know, we had a men’s team that you know, got to the World Cup in 86 and they won the Gold Cup under Holger. But I don’t think candidate had ever cared about soccer as much as they cared about that team that played in Edmonton. So that was kind of her debut for Canada, she was the most valuable player, highest score and most valuable player in that tournament. So you know, and then she joined the national well she played for the national team immediately after that, again with people like Charmaine Hooper, who is a great athlete in her own right, and they, you know they did have a 4th place finish in the World Cup. People tend to forget that they did finish fourth. But you know, I think what really started to put things on the map was what came later and and, you know, and the evolution of the game and the evolution of the players.
Jordan: Well it’s kind of a chicken or the egg situation because you had Christine Sinclair, and this golden generation that kind of took over that team and dragged it in front of everybody watching, and then once you know that it can do good TV ratings and people are really going to care, it becomes a lot easier to recruit talent, bring on sponsors and all the rest of it that puts you a little bit further ahead.
Stephen: Yeah, and parallel to that the game is getting more sophisticated, evolving or changing in a way that soccer people found pleasing. Like I was going to separate myself because I’ve covered soccer for a long time. But you know, soccer people always considered me an outsider, so I always kind of separate myself, but that;The people who would kind of disdain women’s football, women’s soccer started to see the ball being played on the ground more, you know, in more of a passing game, a more sophisticated version of the game and started to kind of give it it’s due. So those two things happen at the same time. One is that you have this golden generation of Canadian players coming through who had succeeded on, you know, a stage, a very popular stage anyway. At the same time you had women’s soccer gain new respect and off course you had that explosion with the Americans, right where you know Brandi Chastain and all of that, you know, it became a big deal in the United States. It was also the breakthrough for American soccer. You know, again, if you think about it, you know, US men’s national team was, you know, pretty good for a long time. But what was the breakthrough for soccer in the U. S? It was the women. You know, absolutely the women.
Jordan: Describe that scene, because you probably…. it’s probably embedded in your memory of Brandi Chastain, and that’s the only thing I remember of that time.
Stephen: Yeah, we scored the winning goal, and she stripped off her jersey, was wearing a sports bra and had, like, an eight pack. You know, she’s absolutely ripped right? Looks like I think it was…. it was a moment of empowerment for a whole bunch of people, and I think for a whole bunch of young girls watching it, it was I want to be her. I want to play that game because it was, you know, it wasn’t dainty. It was ferocious, it was competitive, it was passionate. There were, and there are a lot of great things about women’s soccer.
Jordan: Well and in Canada the women are better.
Stephen: They have been.
Jordan: then the men’s team by an order of magnitude.
Stephen: Yeah, you know, look I could qualify that, say, the pool was shallower, again we were early adapters, we’d probably put more emphasis on, and, you know, what you see now is that, you know, England’s good now, and the Netherlands is getting good, and some of these other soccer countries are kind of saying hang on. Well, Spain’s suddenly pretty good, but yeah, I think in Canada they had the success, and be, I think people did start the kind of tuned in to the fact that someone who might be the best player in the world play for us.
Jordan: So tell me about her then because you’ve covered her for a while now, what is Sinclair like? She’s known, at least to me and casual observers for being pretty closed off.
Stephen: Oh, yeah, you mean as a person.
Jordan: As a person as an athlete, how is she? What drives her?
Stephen: She’s super shy. She doesn’t like doing interviews or during press stuff. If you talk to her teammates, they’ll tell you she’s not shy, that she’s got a great sense of humor, which he does, but she just doesn’t like playing the public role. I remember once;I went down to interview her when I was still the Globe and Mail, she was playing for the Western New York flash or something, again you know the leagues have come and gone, right? But one of those;Down near Buffalo or somewhere, and they were having an open workout for kids, and I was driving down from Globe and I’d set it up through Canadian soccer to do this interview, I think it was before the 2011 World Cup. So it looks a little pressure environment is what I’m saying, and it’s going to be a nice story, and I got stuck in a little bit of traffic the border. So I got there about three minutes before the interview was supposed to happen. But I was, you know, phoning people telling them look I’m coming. Look, she was in her car and she was gonna leave. She was on her way. I almost had to throw myself in front of her car because she didn’t want to do it. She just didn’t want to do the interview, and it was, you know, it was an awkward interview, and there wasn’t much to it, and I’ve been persistent I guess with her to try and get to know her a little bit, and I have huge admiration for her an athlete so maybe that’s part of it as well. But, yeah, she’s never going to be somebody who talks in sound bites. She’s never going to be somebody who kind of toots her own horn, it’s just not in her. She’s a you know, again if anybody’s seen her, she’s a passionate, ferocious competitor, and she does have a sense of humor. But it’s hard to get past you know, the veneer sometimes.
Jordan: Why did you work so hard to get past that veneer?
Stephen: You know, I think a lot of it goes back to that 2011 World Cup, which I’m sure we’re going to talk about. But I covered that.
Jordan: Well tell me about the 2011 World Cup.
Stephen: Well you know, so Canada went into Germany, 2011 world cup was in Germany and Canada…. there’s a sense that Canada could be competitive in this tournament. Sort of like now you know maybe not as; Maybe the expectations weren’t quite where they are now, but they were pretty darn high, and that was the, you know, the moment for that golden generation of players, right? You know, aside from Carl Lang who got hurt, that was that group, and this and was their moment, and Canada had hired an Italian to coach the team Carolina Morace, and the whole idea was that this was the kind of this like finishing school, that she was going to teach them more sophisticated tactics and European training methods, and this is going to turn us into a footballing nation rather than a soccer nation. Our footballing team, rather than a soccer team, and Caroline was an interesting, like a character from fiction, you know, and they had this whole group of Italian trainers and assistant coaches, and there was much intense talk and smoking cigarettes and speaking of Italian and she took them off to a training camp, they went to some hotel in in the mountains in Italy and were locked off by themselves and trained, and you know all of this when you talk to them after the facts, you know, sort of sounded sorta like a prison camp. It sounds nice now, but it wasn’t fun. But they all say the right stuff that okay, we’re gonna… we’re way better, we’re way more sophisticated, we’re going to play with, you know, and we’re going to play our game and we have learned enormous amounts from her. The opening game is against Germany in Berlin, at the Olympic Stadium. They know they’re going to lose that game. Everybody knows we’re going to lose that game, but they you know they compete and Since scores a goal on a free kick I think, not a penalty, I think it was a free kick, but she also gets hit in the nose and breaks her nose, you know, spewing blood and it was really, you know, and there goes the tournament, right? So Carolina Morace, again who is…. she was very much into kind of intrigue and whispered conversations. I’m covering this for the Globe and for Sportsnet, we were the rights holders. So I was as close to any team I think, as I’ve ever been, and there’s many whispered conversations, you know, was she going to play and they wouldn’t let her talk to the media and she was wearing this, you know, like the mask that basketball players wear they break their nose.
Jordan: Right, the Hannibal Lecter mask.
Stephen: Exactly, the Hannibal Lecter mask and so she would be…. and there would be sightings over at the practice, and she would be off on a side field in the distance, but we couldn’t get any closer, and was she kicking the ball? Was she really practicing? And all the whole lead up to this thing is with Sinc. Would she play or wouldn’t should she play? And finally, I remember I was out for dinner, and we’re in the same restaurant as Carolina and her Italian entourage, and she paused in her smoking long enough to come over to me and say, I’d just like to tell you that she’s going to play. So that okay, so that goes out. So everybody sends out the message Sinc is going to play. But with all of this gamesmanship and stuff, they seem to have not actually paid any attention to France, and the French were in ascendance at that point. It was a really good side, and they played Canada off the pitch. So Canada’s tournament is now done, two games in and they’ve still going to play Nigeria. The third; That game against Nigeria is the most dispiriting sporting contest I have ever seen or attended because they were done. The team is emotionally shattered and their coach abandoned them. So coach Morace sat on the bench with her arms crossed, and the body language was entirely eh not me, it’s not me. Just abandoned them and you know, I came to really like those women and I do; I still like them I think they’re great people and I felt so awful. It was just so, absolute worst and their coaches imagine that being written off by your coach just kind of, you know, it’s not my fault. I’m you know, I’m the supreme tactician and they just did not follow orders. So you know and that absolute bottomed me out and then, you know, they hired John Herdman after that and he came in with his kind of happy go lucky John Herdman, jolly personality and said why do you guys play this game? You know do you want to play this game? And he helped them rebuild emotionally, and, you know, a year later they’re in London, you know, the Olympics, and they win that bronze medal. It’s just that I’ve never seen anything as devastating as I saw in 2011. I’ve never been happier for athlete, any athlete I’ve ever covered than I was for those women in 2012. God knows they got screwed against the Americans, but the fact that they came back after that even and won that medal, man. I still it… yeah it brings a tear to my eye, Really does because they’re great people, and they were wrecked. They were just wrecked, and I think, you know, God knows who might have quit and never played again if Herdman hadn’t come along and if they hadn’t kind of found themselves again.
Jordan: And it’s crazy that was eight years ago now and Christine Sinclair is now 36. She’s one of the last members of that team still playing. The last?
Stephen: Yeah, I think well she’s last of that… was Sophie Schmidt on that team? She might have been. Sophie’s still on the team, but that would be it. I think Erin McLeod and Dina Matheson could have been, but they’re both hurt. But, yeah, that she is the last of that generation, for sure.
Jordan: So what is this World Cup for Canada that starts today? What is it for this team? What is it for Sinclair?
Stephen: Well I don’t think it’s the end for her. I think she’s going to play in the Olympics next year. Presuming they qualify, I assume she’ll play in the Olympics next year, and it would not shock me if she played another World Cup at age 40. I don’t know that she couldn’t. I asked her about it and she lives in Portland. She’s, you know, she plays for the professional team there, The Thorns. She’s done a little bit of coaching. She’s very much in the sport, but I don’t think this is the swan song.
Jordan: How much is this team hers compared to those 2011 teams? Is she still the heart of it?
Stephen: Oh yeah. You mean like there’s some, you know, there’s some other people who are important to this team, for sure, and there were other people on those teams who were important. But yeah, I think this is a really young group and a very talented group and I think she’s, you know, she’s kind of everything right? She’s the best player on the team still, but she’s, you know, the mentor, the hero of a lot of them, you know, think about about it, again 10 years. Think of the age of some of these young women on this team. They were kids watching London. Like London to me seems like yesterday. You know, a lot of things seemed like yesterday to me, but that was the best part of those Olympics. Like we won gold medals in those Olympics, but do you remember anything more than that soccer team? I don’t.
Jordan: No, I remember where I was watching that match. For anybody listening, Stephen says he’s not a soccer guy. I am less of a soccer guy and I watched that match.
Stephen: Yeah, I’m a non soccer guy, who gets to cover soccer, so it’s the best of all possible worlds. But like you know Jean Becky or some of the women on this team like they would’ve been kids watching that game going I want to be her and, you know, and it wasn’t just the result, right? It was that I just, you know, the righteous indignation, right? The anger and the passion and her scoring those three goals against the Americans, and you know, she’s still mad about the referee, and I don’t blame her. To me it was the fighting spirit, you know, it was the like, if that’s a Canadian thing, I’ll take it. I’m quite happy to say that is her Canadian-ness coming out?
Jordan: What about her game now on the pitch at age 36? She’s the best player on the team at that age, and she’s closing in on records now.
Stephen: Well the cool thing is kind of how her game has evolved over time because, you know, in that game of, you know, big, tall, strong women running fast, she could do that. She kind of mirrors the sport. She can score obviously, like that’s ya obviously but she’s got great vision on the field. You know, she’s a great distributor. She can play behind the strikers a little bit if needs be and facilitate. Great IQ, like a crazy high football IQ. You know she makes really good decisions and her skills on the ball are, you know, maybe not as not as flashy as Marta or somebody like that, but she’s really good on the ball. But I think, yeah, I would say the main thing is it’s kind of Gretzky right? She sees the game unfolding around her and makes really good decisions about where the ball is going to go.
Jordan: How close is she to being considered the greatest of all time in this game? Is she in that conversation?
Stephen: Well she should be. You know, she’s three goals away from setting the all time scoring record in international soccer, male or female. So Abby Wombat holds that record, the American who’s retired and is like kind of the arch nemesis if you’re Canadian or pretty much anybody else like Abby is a like a cartoon American. She is on that pedestal and you know historically ya there have been some, you know, Marta’s still playing, Brazil, she’s a great, great player. Everybody, you know, she’s the one that people kind of go to for who’s the best player in the world, women’s player in the world they say, well, Martha. Sinc doesn’t get listed at the top very much, and you know never mind in the all time list in the current list she would probably be listed fifth or sixth or seventh by a lot of people. But I think if you talk to a soccer, a soccer person, a women’s soccer person, you know she is on what five best players of all time, she’d be on that list. I think she’d have to be. I know I think you it would be crazy not to put her in that point on the list. In terms of Canadian athletes, it’s in my own personal crusade. But again, I think hockey players aside because we got a lot of them, she’s one of the five greatest Canadian athletes of all time, male or female, like who else is on that list? Steve Nash you know, sprinters. You know….
Jordan: Donovan Bailey….
Stephen: depending on whether you put Ben on or not. I always put Ben on, but some people don’t. Um…. some swimmers. But she, ya she’s right there.
Jordan: How does this team stack up at the World Cup compared to past generations? We’ve had two bronze medals now in a row
Stephen: at the Olympics. Ya….
Jordan: at the Olympics… ya. Sorry. Is there reason to think that this one, this could be more?
Stephen: Ya, you know…. the team, you know we had the World Cup right? We hosted and they got to the knock out round, they lost in England. It was an okay result, wasn’t a great result I didn’t think on home soil. That was kind of a transitional team, this is more fully, you know, that transition has really happened now. They’ve got a bit of a tricky draw. You know like the Netherlands, is a really up and coming side and they’re in their group. You’ve got New Zealand and they’ve got Cameroon so you know, they should get out of the group. I think that, like the Dutch are a side that a lot of people like and they’ve got some really exciting players again, a soccer country kind of… coming to women’s soccer late in a lot of ways. If it breaks right, they haven’t lost a match since last fall. Canada hasn’t. That was to the Americans. You know, it kind of depends on how the draw falls after they get out of the; Presumably get out of the group stage. But they have; They’re very talented like they’re playing with a ton of confidence right now. As a unit, I think they’re there very; As you know, it’s what Christine said we’re really good. You know, that was her, you know, wild overstatement, where we’re really good. I think they’re really good. They would need some breaks, but they’ll get into the knockout rounds and then it kind of depends on who they stack up against. But, you know, I just love to see them beat the Americans somehow. Just beat the Americans in a knockout game, you know, like I don’t care where it comes. Yeah, maybe, and maybe break Abby Wambach’s record right in the same game. That would be a great outcome. Yeah, if that happens in the quarters or the wherever that might happen, I think we could all just go home happy.
Jordan: Thanks, Steven.
Stephen: My pleasure.
Jordan: Steven Brunt from Sportsnet. Not a soccer guy, but Christine Sinclair, fan for life. That was The Big Story. For more from us we are at thebigstorypodcast dot ca. Hit that little search bar on the bottom and search for Brunt you’ll find him a few times. You can talk to us at the big story FPN, on Twitter at frequency pods on Twitter, on Facebook, on Instagram, and ou can listen to us and subscribe for free wherever you get your podcast. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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