It was easy to dismiss Canada’s Olympic hopes last February, during Olympic Qualification. Canada was eliminated by England in the Women’s World Cup, an early exit in a tournament in which they were the hosts was a stinging defeat. That memory still lingered among soccer fans last winter. The response of the Women’s Team was convincing. They would go on to defeat Guyana 5-0, Trinidad and Tobago 6-0, Guatemala 10-0 and Costa Rica 3-1. They would lose only a single game in qualifying, to the reigning world champions, the United States.
Despite their impressive qualification, doubts and scepticism remained. When the group stage participants were announced, it was easy to assume Canada would be beaten by both Australia and Germany in the group stage, as they were both ranked ahead of Canada. Even if Canada did advance, the Americans, the Brazilians, the French and the Germans were all heavy favourites. Canada, it was assumed, didn’t have a chance at capturing a medal in the Olympics in 2016. Pre-tournament friendlies, including a loss to France, and a win and a loss against Brazil, did little to instill confidence in Canadian fans.
As with the performance of Canada in London in 2012, someone failed to inform the women’s national team that they were supposed to be underdogs.
Canada began the tournament against Australia, who played the match as favourites. Within the first minute, les rouges made a statement with a goal after only 35 seconds by Janine Beckie, an Olympic record at the time. Zadorsky would earn herself a red card early in the game, and Canada would finish the game with only 10 players on the pitch. Well, that and two goals. Despite all odds, the women’s team had carried the day against a team widely considered superior.
They would display the same ironclad tenacity, and attacking fortitude against Zimbabwe. If the games in Rio was a tale of underdogs, Canada was determined to ensure that they were not involved in an upset. For their part, Canada scored three goals, while conceding only one.
However, the match of the tournament for many Canadians came early – against Germany – in the final match of the Group Stages. Canada would defeat Germany 2-1, a feat they had previously never accomplished, to top their group in Olympic play. Not only did they defeat the 2nd ranked team in the World, Canada was the only team to take the full 3 points from every group-stage match. That means that Canada, and Canada alone, would advance into the quarter-finals with 9 points. Neither the Americans, nor the French nor the Brazilians could match that impressive feat.
For their efforts, the Canadians were seeded highest in the quarter-finals, and rewarded with a match against France, ranked 3rd in the world. France had defeated Canada in every match played since the London games, and was looking for revenge. Instead, Canada dispatched les bleus with a Sophie Schmidt goal in what was only Canada’s second victory against France in 4 years. The last victory against the French was, in a twist of fate, in London in 2012.
The Canadians were undefeated in four matches, and had beaten the 2nd, 3rd, and 6th ranked teams in the world. It was the most impressive performance of the tournament, including the Swedes eliminating the United States the day after Canada’s match against the French. Sadly, their luck was about to change.
If the doubters and skeptics were hesitant before the tournament, they were now silenced. Canada was within one game of a guaranteed silver medal, and a chance at gold. Unfortunately, they were to be vindicated only three days later.
In the semi-finals, Canada would lose to Germany 2-0. It was an impressive performance, overall, but Canada’s spell of victories would end. Canada would not leave Rio de Janeiro with a gold or silver medal, and would have to play Brazil for a chance at bronze.
I am not a believer in either fate, or pre-destination, but on a sunny July day in Brazil, I would gladly forgive anyone who was. 4 years prior, Canada stunned the world by beating France for the bronze medal, after losing in the semi-finals to the United States on controversial refereeing decisions that changed the tempo of the game. 4 years later, Canada would be facing the hosts for a medal, while the United States was eliminated, and facing media scrutiny for unsportsmanlike remarks after their elimination. Perhaps the soccer gods do indeed believe in poetic justice.
With history riding on their shoulders, and in front of 50,000 fans at Arena Corinthians in Sao Paulo, Canada would defeat the hosts 2-1, to earn a bronze medal.
Perhaps most importantly, was that the first goal of the game against Brazil was scored by 17 year old Diane Rose. Players like Diane Rose, Jessie Fleming and Janine Beckie will form the core of what will certainly become Canada’s next generation of soccer stars. This generation has grown up in an environment in which Canada’s women’s team could expect –and achieve – greatness. From hosting a World Cup, to winning successive medals in the Olympics, to winning international tournaments like the Algarve Cup, the next generation of Canadian soccer stars will understand that they are no longer underdogs.
One bronze medal win is a fluke. Successive wins is a trend. That is an impressive feat for a sport that has no professional club teams in Canada, let alone a professional league. Despite the skeptics, and the lack of a professional league, congratulations are in order for our victorious women’s team. They have ushered in the Bronze Age of Canadian Women’s Soccer, and inspired a generation of young women to follow in their footsteps.
Félicitations, to the entire team. We cannot wait to see what you accomplish next.