Willes: Canada's women's soccer team has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity
The 2015 women’s World Cup starts with warm-up vs. Germany
They were teenagers then — still girls, really — and in their first appearance together they caught the imagination of the country.
And that was just going to be the start. In time, they would become Canada’s own golden generation and they would lead the Maple Leaf to victories it had never achieved in soccer. They had the once-in-a-decade talent in Christine Sinclair. They had an able supporting cast. The world opened up before them like the dawn of a new day and their journey together was going to be something to remember.
That was 12 years ago. Now the circle is drawing to a close, but still, there is one final act to play out.
“It’s pretty crazy to think how young we were when we started and how far we’ve come,” says Brittany Baxter, then a 16-year-old ingenue named Brittany Timko, now a 28-year-old married veteran of the women’s national team. “It’s been really exciting to grow and form the friendships we have. We really want to do something special in Canada because that was the start of something in 2002. It would be incredible for us to win a World Cup in 2015.”
Incredible for themselves, incredible for this country.
“The reality is, that group is more important than they’ve ever been,” said national team head coach John Herdman. “They ensure there’s a clear culture, a clear structure. You don’t get that with young people. You can’t imagine this World Cup without them.”
On Wednesday night, the Canadians meet the powerful German side in an international friendly at B.C. Place, and if you were looking to start the countdown to the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada, this is as good a place as any. In less than a year, Herdman’s charges will be the focal point of this country’s attention, and if the women haven’t always fulfilled their early promise, they are nothing if not optimistic as they begin their journey toward the women’s game’s biggest stage.
That optimism, moreover, has some basis in reality. Two years ago at the Olympics, the Canadians won a bronze medal after pushing the heavily favoured Americans to the limit in the semifinal game. There have been other near misses along the way and Canada currently sits seventh in FIFA’s world rankings, all of which suggests a run to the World Cup is in the realm of possibility.
At least that’s the way Herdman sees it.
“If you ask us if we’ll win the World Cup in Canada, we’ve got no choice,” the coach says. “We’ll never get this chance again so why talk about losing it? You’ve got to say, that’s what we’re here to do, and you think about that every day and work toward that one goal.”
But, to get there, they will turn to the same players they’ve turned to for the last 12 years and that would be quite a final act for Sinclair et al.
The embryo of the women’s team was formed at the 2002 U19 Women’s World Cup, held in Canada and FIFA’s first sanctioned women’s youth tournament. That year, Sinclair led a group of previously unheralded players to the gold-medal game where they dropped a 1-0 decision to the U.S.
Sinclair was named the tournament’s best player. Goalie Erin McLeod was named to the tournament all-star team with midfielder Carmelina Moscato. Baxter was a 16-year-old starter. And they’re all still together, all dreaming a big dream for 2015.
“Some of these girls are my best friends,” says Baxter. “You can’t help but form bonds because there’s been so many life experiences — highs and lows — we’ve shared over the years. It really is like having 21 sisters on the team.”
London and the 2012 Olympics was one of the highs. The 2011 World Cup, when they lost three straight, was one of the lows. That was the second straight World Cup the Canadian women failed to make it out of the group stage.
Still, Sinclair looks to the changes the team made between the disaster at the 2011 World Cup and London and says, see, it can be done. The national team will go through a similar process leading up to 2015; a process in which players will secure their place on the team while others are let go.
That could mean some of the old guard won’t make it to the big stage and that’s part of the cruel reality of sports. Knocking on the door this time around is Jessie Fleming, who’s yet to turn 16, and 17-year-old Sura Yekka.
“To look at them and to think, that was me, is cool,” says Baxter “I think my 28-year-old self has learned a lot through my career.”
She continues: “I mean, we’re all getting older. There’s a lot of good young players pushing the older players. I think we’re all just taking this as a great opportunity, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to host a World Cup at home.”
And to write — what’s that word again? ah yes — an incredible ending to their story.
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