August 6, 2021. A steamy Friday evening in Yokohama, Japan.
The Olympic Women’s soccer competition, delayed a full year by Covid and taking place in an empty stadium, still comes to a gripping conclusion.
Ninety minutes, plus extra time, cannot separate the two finalists. Canada vs Sweden. The game now down to penalty kicks, at stake a highly coveted gold medal. The pressure mounts exponentially, the tension obvious as each team converts only two of its five allotted attempts.
Round six looms. Sudden death. Or sudden victory.
Joana Andersson’s spot kick is saved by Canadian keeper Stephanie Labbe.
And so, with a worldwide television audience glued to their sets, up steps a precocious 20-year-old. Julia Grosso. Calm as can be, she fires a powerful, accurate left foot shot. The ball rockets into the net. Euphoria, as teammates rush to embrace her.
Canada is Olympic champion.
On the surface at least, the future looks bright. A deep and capable squad, featuring some talismanic veterans and a bevy of uber athletic, talented youngsters, looks eagerly forward to the 2023 World Cup.
Alas, sport being what it is, nothing may be taken for granted. And the Canadians learn a harsh lesson, becoming the first reigning Olympic champion to fail to advance out of its World Cup group stage. Unconvincing performances vs upstarts Ireland and Nigeria precede a bewildering 4-0 trouncing at the hands of co-host Australia.
Perhaps the distressing early exit from the tournament does not really surprise supporters or even the Canada Soccer brass. As impressive and satisfying as the 2021 Olympic gold medal may have been, regular World Cup success has proved and proves elusive. Reaching the 2003 semifinals notwithstanding, the national team fails to advance from pool play on five other occasions. Pure and simple, international tournament triumphs, especially as the number of well organized and ambitious opponents widens, are tricky.
For starters, a sputtering offence continually submarines the team. In the gold medal run in 2021, brilliant goalkeeping and rock solid defence compensate for a dearth of scoring. Indeed, in the three medal games in Tokyo, Canada manage only two goals, both from penalty kicks. Two wins come via shootouts. Lack of creativity, lack of individual one on one ability, lack of X factor, lack of penetration, all contribute to severely stymie the attack. Even the presence of star striker Christine Sinclair, merely the sport's all time record goal scorer, cannot reverse these trends.
The current World Cup is more of the same. Two measly goals in three games, one an extremely fortunate own goal off an Irish defender. Plenty of possession, but zero cutting edge. Several players perform well below potential, a step slow. Guilty of egregious errors, skill deficiencies, or lack of finish. Others are pretty much invisible.
Against Australia in particular, the defensive marking is nothing short of horrendous, while opposition crosses and corner kicks spread panic. Even acrobatic goalie Kaelin Sheridan, legitimately considered one of the best in the world, has a tournament she will want to forget.
A search for answers continues.
Certainly, a much publicized pre–World Cup dispute between the players and the national soccer association, over funding cuts to the program, does not help. Threats of legal action sour significantly the relationship between the two groups. If not the main reason why the team goes off the tracks prior to and during the tournament, the rancor definitely does not help.
Along the same lines, a decision by certain Canadian players to broadcast the “lack of respect” card backfires spectacularly. Perhaps some believe, wrongly it quickly becomes clear, that Olympic success translates automatically to consideration as a legitimate World Cup favourite. Certainly, the oddsmakers take a greater fancy to other sides. To USA and Japan. And to a host of European nations, Germany, Netherlands, England, Spain, Sweden and France.
Of course, World Cup respect must be earned. Canada, for most of the past 40 years, fails in this regard. And fails again in 2023.
Their tournament exit confirmed, even if the tears flow, the Canadian players put on a brave face. Commend Australia on a fine performance. Bemoan their own lack of composure.
The head coach neatly sums up the situation. “After the early Australian goal, we lost some belief. Football (Soccer) can be cruel,” she tells an assembled throng of reporters.
Agreed. Sport can indeed be cruel, in its many forms, shapes and sizes. Still, other countries deal with labour issues, disagreements between the national team and its federation, injuries and fluctuating form. Find a way to focus, prepare and perform as needed.
The Canadian women can do the same. The country needs its own professional league. Must better support its age grade development programs. Must sort out a collective bargaining agreement. The squad must rediscover its defensive grit and organization. Must find a way to develop a consistent offensive punch. As was the case in Yokohama, must have their best players actually be their best players when needed most.
Until then, the team will remain vulnerable.
2021 Olympic champion. Yet, pretty much the same group a serious 2023 World Cup disappointment.
It's the cutthroat nature of elite level competition. One day a rooster, the next a feather duster.