Canada women’s soccer team won a bronze yesterday, Canada’s first Summer Games team medal since 1936. I guess you have to contemplate that it’s kind of mind-blowing that Canada hasn’t managed one in any team sport, male or female, in almost 80 years worth of Olympics. Nevertheless it’s a very impressive accomplishment and as an avid female soccer fan, I’m pumped for the team that broke the streak.
The sad part with media sometimes is the simplicity in which they report a story. I say sad, because there are so many more layers to the accomplishment than the simple “redemption” story that is presented over and over again, playing off Canada’s last place finish at the Women’s World Cup last year. Although, don’t get me wrong, I think the image of John Herdman riding up on a white horse is a great one (seriously, is there a better looking man coaching at the Olympics? But I digress..)
The unfortunate part is in this whole redemption storyline that juxtaposed next to Herdman the hero, is Morace the villain. Comparing the 2011 World Cup and the 2012 Olympic performances, as has been done repeatedly in the Canadian media says everything for the line and luck that separates success and failure in sport. I say this because it’s interesting to note that the Canadian’s third place finish in group play at these Olympics would have also left them out of the knockout round in group play at the World Cup, and stamped with the title of “failure”. For all the talk about how much John Herdman improved the team, the stats between 2011 and 2012 were almost identical in opportunities of comparison. They lost to the reigning World Cup champ in 2-1 in their first game, and were outshot by France 19-8 in 2011, and 18-4 in 2012.
Yet showing the ruthlessness and randomness of sport, while France seemed to finish any legitimate chance they had in 2011, yesterday, it looked like they couldn’t buy a goal for anything. On the other hand for Canada, it looked like the soccer gods wanted to make up for what happened in a controversial semi-final, and gave a goal and glory to probably the most underrated Canadian player on the team (yes I’m a big Diana Matheson fan) on the Canadians only shot on frame in the whole game. Similar situations, yet Canada goes home with a winners stamp in 2012 and Herdman on a horse, while with almost identical stats, the Canadian team slunk out of the 2011 World Cup, their tail between their legs. Morace forever gleefully branded as a loser by every form of Canadian media, illustrating what a cruel, unfair entity sport is and with a lack of critical thinking and reporting by the media, how ignorance can be perpetuated.
As someone that has been around and remembers the women’s soccer scene right back into the Turnbull era in the 90’s, I also think the simplicity of the “redemption” storyline fails to recognize the journey that the Canadian team took to get to that bronze, a journey that has been 13 years in the making.
First and foremost, players like Charmaine Hooper and Andrea Neil, who after a dismal 1999 WWC performance, put themselves, their playing careers and finances on the line by demanding that the Canadian program have a full-time head coach (they were thrown off the team and had their carding money cut for a few months in ’99 as a reward for their efforts). Because of their courage, the CSA finally listened, changed the position of women’s head coach from part time to full time, and hired Norwegian Even Pellerud, one of the top women’s coaches in the world at the time.
For all the heat that Pellerud took in his coaching career in Canada, one has to credit how he built the Canadian team from nothing into a 4th place finish at the World Cup in 2003 and instilled a belief in the Canadian team that they could compete with the best teams in the world. Armed with the confidence of coaching Norway’s women to the 1995 World Cup, he commanded respect from the CSA and demanded funding and games for the Canadian women that played a role in the development of Canadian female players.
As much as I dislike everything about the CSA as the next person, the residual effect of their decision to host the 2002 U19 World Cup was still evident in the Olympic bronze win yesterday. The funding of that 2002 team was, and still is unprecedented for a youth team in Canada. One only had to look on the field yesterday to see almost half the Canadian team made up of those 2002ers (Erin McLeod, Candace Chapman, Carm Moscato, Christine Sinclair and Brittany Timko at the final whistle with Melanie Booth on the bench and Robyn Gayle injured in the stands) to see the legacy of that player development, that is still there today.
And finally for all the slack that Carolina Morace has taken, anyone that has followed Canadian soccer over the last five years, has to give her some credit for the team getting to where they have. What Morace took from Even and handed to Herdman was a completely different product, a product that was capable of playing technical soccer with the best in the world, a team that had evolved with the quickly developing international soccer scene.
Not only did the Canadians become better technical players, able and trying to play possession soccer, you could see the Canadian team develop and become players that started to understand the intricacies of the game tactically, besides the “hammer the ball into the final third and stay defensively compact” mantra that Pellerud chose to preach in order to get results. Physically, the Canadians were more agile and physically sleek from their time with Morace as she employed more sophisticated soccer-specific nutrition and training, in line with her Italian background.
Although Morace has been hammered in the Canadian media, I do think it’s important to note that we’ve never had her side of the story, as per legalities in her contract with the CSA. So while media and the CSA, amongst others, have childishly taken shots at her, she has metaphorically had her hands tied behind her back unable to mount any kind of defence.
Anyone breaking up fights in the sandbox knows that the truth usually lies in the space between two groups perspective.
While I do think its somewhat hyperbolic to paint Herdman on the white horse, I think he came in at the right time and did a great job of refining the product that Morace handed him, while adding the right amount of brash attitude at a time when the team morale was at it’s lowest. At the Olympics he showed his coaching acumen making smart decisions such as inserting Filigno into the line-up for the third game and on, which opened up more space for Tancredi and Sinclair immediately with the threat of her speed. Players such as McLeod, Wilkinson, Schmidt, Matheson, and Sinclair put in the world-class effort that they have for a long time.
In this tournament a few more pieces came together with Scott and Sesselmann providing a massive boost, Tancredi doing a commendable job of finding a consistent scoring touch, while Sinclair knocked her performance up another gear and finally stamped her place on the world stage as the best player on the planet.
That all being said, the beauty of this team and the story should be its resilience. About being world-class and continuing to believe it and work at it until they got the recognition and bounces that they finally deserved. I think the spirit of this Canadian team that should be celebrated, is represented no better than by Carmelina Moscato. Carm played 1 minute in the 2 World Cups that she represented Canada in (2003 and 2011) and even took a hiatus from playing the game, coaching college soccer for 2 years when she just wasn’t enjoying it anymore.
After playing not even a moment in 2011, and going into the Olympics arguably backing up Chapman and Zurrer she seized her moment when both went down to injury and had a fantastic tournament, showing the world-class player that has been there all along, providing both smart defending and composed distribution, on her way to playing every single minute for Canada at the 2012 Games.
With that final story I’ll argue the headlines should be about the beauty of the Canadian team’s resilience and nothing to do with the connotations that come with “redemption” and the idea that the team were losers at any point.
It’s been a team of champions for a long time. They just finally got their moment to shine.