Canada Soccer’s Women’s National Team picked up a historic gold medal on Friday morning, as they beat Sweden in the final of the women’s soccer tournament. Here’s what stood out to us from that one.
Against all odds, they found a way.
After many had predicted they’d struggle to get out of the group stages, that their squad was too old, that head coach Bev Priestman wasn’t ready to be the head coach of a top 10 team – Canada Soccer’s Women’s National Team went out and proved all of their doubters wrong on Friday, winning a historic gold medal.
Against a Sweden team that knocked them out of the 2019 World Cup, they had to fight for a result, coming back from down 1-0 after an early goal to win on penalties, in which they again had to come back from down a goal to pick up a result for the ages.
It might not have been the best game that Canada will ever play, but it was the perfect one on a perfect day, one that will be christened in gold forever.
Coming into this tournament with ambitions to ‘change the colour of the medal’ after back-to-back bronze medals in the last 2 Olympics, most expected this Canadian team to flame out much earlier than they did, but instead, they proved to be impossible to get rid of.
Thanks to their resilient spirit, they sliced through the group stages undefeated, but there were questions about them, as they only won 1 of 3 games in their Group, drawing against Japan and Great Britain, the two other favourites to win the group.
But for Canada, that didn’t bother them, as they had completed their first goal of the tournament – progress to the quarter-finals.
And then once they were there, they turned the heat right up.
First, in the quarters, facing off against a Brazilian team who they hadn’t beaten in 4 games, Canada then locked things down for 120 minutes, before winning on penalties.
Then, coming up against a #1 ranked US side in the semi-finals, Canada surprised the tournament favourites, beating them 1-0 thanks to a 74th-minute penalty, once again putting together a defensive masterclass, one that allowed them to beat their rivals for the first time since 2001.
Lastly, they then took on a Swedish side who had quickly become the team to watch this tournament, having dispatched the US 3-0 in their opening game, snapping the Americans 44-game undefeated run in the process, before storming through undefeated to the final, winning all 5 of their games along the way.
So to then see them go up in the 34th minute of the final was scary, as Sweden had scored first in every prior game in the tournament before cruising to a result, which based on how they were playing when they scored that opener against Canada, seemed like the inevitable result.
That didn’t faze Canada, though, who then came out with a vengeance in the 2nd half, as they chased an equalizer. Thanks to their efforts, that would then come in the 67th minute, as Canada managed to win a penalty, one they put away with conviction, giving them another lifeline in the game.
From there, they managed to get the game to penalties once again, in which they rallied after going down 2-1 to then win in the 6th round of spot-kicks, confirming their historic result.
It might now have been how anyone would have drawn it up, as Canada didn’t score a goal from open play in the knockout stages, but thanks to a defending masterclass of the highest order, and some timely goals, they managed to have their golden moment.
Against the odds, they managed to pick up a result that rallied the country, giving many fans a moment they won’t soon forget.
So with all of that in mind, here’s what stood out from this special game, one that will be etched in the memories of Canadians across the country (and the world) for decades to come.
Sweden’s early surge catches Canada sleeping:
And to start, it’s worth noting that this countrywide Canadian party nearly never happened, as Sweden came out of the gates strong, looking every bit like the side that had rolled through the rest of the tournament just to get to this point.
Canada was up to the task to start, as they certainly seemed willing to play, but that intent faded as the half went along, as they struggled to maintain the sort of pace that Sweden wanted to play the game at.
Because of that, Canada started to make some sloppy mistakes, which was quite uncharacteristic of them.
So naturally, Sweden would find a way to pounce on one of those mistakes in the 34th minute, as a loose ball from Canada fell right to the wrong player, Sweden’s Kosovare Asllani, who looked up whipped in a nice low ball, one that Stina Blackstenius put away with conviction for her 5th goal of the tournament.
For Canada, it was a frustrating goal to give up, as it originated from a cocktail of their own mistakes, starting with the turnover, continuing with their failure to close down Asllani before she crossed the ball, and then forgetting to mark the dangerous Blackstenius in the box.
As a result, it left them trailing in a game for the 1st time all tournament long, and considering their offensive struggles, as they entered this game having only scored 5 goals from the first 5 games, one could only wonder if they had any sort of comeback left in them.
And even if they found a bit of magic, it was hard to imagine them breaking through a resolute Swedish defence, one that had only allowed 3 goals through their first 5 games, truly putting Canada in a rough spot heading into the next 55 minutes of action.
Unflappable Fleming strikes again:
But then, Canada came out with a vengeance in the 2nd half, as they looked to put that quiet first 45 minutes behind them.
Thanks to 2 halftime changes, which saw Julia Grosso and Adriana Leon enter for Quinn and Janine Beckie, who were both starting to look tired, Canada finally came out and started to control the game, looking much more like the Canada of usual.
Showing an initiative not often seen of them, Canada then started to try and break down the resolute Swedish defence, be it via incisive passes, or shots, looking like the more dangerous team to start that 2nd half
Despite that, though, they didn’t find that pivotal breakthrough quite yet, as despite their pressure, Sweden looked far too comfortable in defending their opponent’s push.
That would change in the 62nd minute, though.
After a nice low ball into the box, Canada’s captain, Christine Sinclair, was first to it, but got tackled as she did, falling heavily to the ground.
Upon first glance, it looked like a tough but fair challenge, one that was starting to characterize Canada’s night to that point, as they just couldn’t get through those Swedish defenders.
Upon second viewing, though, it appeared that the defender got a lot more of Sinclair than she did the ball, in fact, she got none of it, and VAR agreed with that sentiment, sending the match official to check the monitor to see if there was a penalty.
And then, much like the VAR did, the official also agreed with that sentiment, pointing to the spot, giving Canada a chance to tie up the game with a spot-kick.
But despite having this golden opportunity, the question then remained – who would take this kick? In 2019, Canada also famously had a chance to tie Sweden down 1-0 in the 2nd half of that eventual Round of 16 loss, but were unable to convert their penalty, missing a golden chance to win the game.
Would it be Sinclair herself, scorer of 187 international goals, the most of any player in international history? That would be the common expectation, but that wouldn’t be the case, something that wasn’t surprising for anyone who watched Canada’s previous game against the US.
In that game, Canada won a penalty with a chance to go up 1-0, and instead of taking it, Sinclair took the ball and handed it off to Jessie Fleming, who slammed the ball into the side-netting with conviction to get her team the win.
So naturally, Sinclair once again gave the 23-year-old Fleming the ball, putting the hopes of a nation on her young shoulders.
Despite that pressure, though, Fleming then showed the composure of a 15-year veteran, sliding the ball down the opposite side that she went against the US, putting Canada back into the final, all tied up at 1 with 23 minutes to go.
So if Sinclair passing the penalty to Fleming against the US was seen as a passing of the torch as sorts, her doing it again in the final was just a confirmation of her being all-in on the youth movement, as despite nearly doing it all for her country for so long, she had full trust in someone who was just 2 years-old when Sinclair made her full international debut as a 16-year-old back in 2000.
But as mentioned after the US game, that’s Sinclair for you, as she has always been someone who has always been as selfless as they come, looking out for her teammates from the very beginning of her time in a Canadian shirt.
Because of that, it was nice to see Canada step up big for Sinclair this tournament, with Fleming’s penalty conversion just being one example amongst many of Canada rallying as a group instead of just hoping for individual heroics, showing their improved cohesion as a team under Priestman.
Labbe’s heroics save the day:
But much like with Fleming’s exploit, that didn’t mean that Canada didn’t get some big individual performances from their players, far from it, with the big difference being that they would often come from different individuals at different moments.
And in the shootout, that moment would then come from Canada’s goalkeeper, Stephanie Labbe, who continued her exceptional tournament with a heroic performance in the spot-kicks.
After stopping a penalty in the group stages, and then helping Canada get past Brazil on spot-kicks in the Round of 16, Canada had full confidence in their shot-stopper heading into this massive penalty shootout, which was all that was left to conquer in their road between them and a gold medal.
So when Sweden then missed their first spot-kick, hitting the post to give Canada the advantage, you could be excused for breathing a sigh of relief as Fleming (again) coolly converted, putting Canada up 1-0 after 1 round, knowing that Canada had Labbe in goal to lock things down.
But then, disaster struck for Canada, as they would miss the next 3 penalties, putting them behind the 8 ball as Sweden converted their next 2, leaving Labbe to have to come up big with the game on the line.
Cometh the hour, though, cometh Labbe, as she then forced Sweden into 2 straight misses herself, 1 of them being a massive save from Canada’s shot-stopper, allowing Canada to get to sudden death after Deanne Rose finally broke Canada’s streak with a game-saving penalty to close out the 5th round.
And from there, with Sweden shooting first, as they had all shootout, Labbe had her big moment.
Continuing her heroics from earlier in the shootout, she stepped up and saved Jonna Andersson’s penalty effort, giving Canada a chance to win gold.
Then, Canada’s 3rd-youngest player, the 20-year-old Grosso, then stepped up and calmly slipped the ball home, confirming Canada’s long-awaited golden moment.
Thanks to Labbe’s heroics, Canada managed to get out of a jam that saw them on the brink of losing the game altogether, but Labbe never strayed from being her usual confident self, even smiling before some of the Swedish attempts.
Because of that, in what she’d said would probably be her last major tournament for Canada, she ensured that she’d probably never have to buy a drink again in this country, making herself a Canadian legend with her performance.
Otherwise, as we tend to do, it’s worth quickly pointing out that Canada once again stuck with the tactical set-up that got them this far, the 4-3-1-2.
Defensively, it continues to be a revelation, as it’s very hard to break down this Canadian team when they settle down in their defensive bank of 4 and midfield bank of 3, as Sweden got to see for most of the game.
Because of that, it was no surprise to see Canada give up their only goal via an individual mistake, as that appears to be the only way to beat them right now, especially with how well they’ve defended.
So while they’ve still got some work to do offensively, especially in terms of establishing more possession patterns to try and break down teams, if they can keep defending like this going forward, they should be in good hands for future tournaments, as well.
As the old adage goes, goals might win games, but defence wins championships, and Canada bore the fruit of that on Friday.
Canada’s special moment:
Lastly, it’s worth pointing out how special this victory is on so many fronts.
To start, for those who played, this is massive, as this is the fruit of months and years of hard work, leading to this point. This team has come together in a big way after a rough few years, finding the sort of belief and drive that can allow one to dream of a result like this.
Plus, a big shout out to Priestman and her staff for helping create that environment, despite only coming into charge last year, and getting just 4 camps to put this puzzle together. In her first head coaching job, she’s so far knocked it out of the park, and still being so young, there’s much more to come from her.
Moving on, shout out to those who helped build this program, from those who took the field with Canada in their first-ever game in 1986, to those who were there for the first victory, first participation at a major tournament and first trophy, which all helped build to this.
Lastly, shout out to Canada for showing up and rallying around this team, despite the early hours that their games were played at this tournament. Hopefully, this team can properly do a victory tour in the fall in front of full stadiums across Canada, giving those fans a chance to cheer on their heroes in person again, making for a memorable reunion.
So all-in-all, this will be a moment that will be remembered for decades to come, as the 1st time that Canada took on all-comers in a major tournament in the world’s game and triumphed, showing that this country can be a force to be reckoned with in this sport.
There’s still a lot to do now, such as go win a World Cup, and start up a professional league that will allow girls around the country to one day dream of playing professionally in their own country, an opportunity that unfortunately only the boys have right now.
As seen here, that needs to change, giving more opportunities for players to also one day dream of being on the next team that picks up a win like this, much like some of the players on this team did the same when they were little.
But thanks to a victory like this, something like that is closer than ever to becoming a reality, as investors will have surely seen the potential value that an investment like that could bring both to them and the sport across the country.
But now, until the groundwork will start to be laid on plans such as that professional league or that aforementioned victory tour, these Canadian players have every right to party their hearts out in the coming days, rewarding themselves for weeks and months of hard work.
Having defied the odds just to make this happen, this is a moment that won’t be soon forgotten, and for good reason, as this team managed to unite a nation around the world’s game.
Because of that, they’ll be forever part of soccer history, and for good reason, as they played like heroes on the pitch, and were rewarded for their efforts.
Thanks to that, a nation smiles tonight, as they celebrate one of the most memorable Canadian gold medals in recent memory.
Cover Photo via: CONCACAF