“With Christine we’ve seen it,” Canadian women’s football coach Bev Priestman told Tokyo 2020. “She turns up when it matters.”
This could be the understatement of all understatements.
No one’s scored more goals than Christine Sinclair in international football – no man or woman in all the 150 or so years that countries have played the game against other countries. Her numbers take the breath away. 187 goals in 303 games. And in the Olympics, through four editions, she’s got 12 goals in 15 matches – just two shy of equaling Brazilian Cristiane’s all-time Olympic record (14).
Now, at the age of 38, Sinclair’s got her best chance to leave an Olympics with a gold medal. It would make a hat-trick of two bronzes (London 2012 and Rio 2016) and one gold (or silver). And in the final game against an outstanding Sweden, who won silver in Rio in 2016 and only conceded three goals so far at Tokyo 2020, it will be Sinclair’s nous, experience and goal-hunger that could well make the difference as Canada hunt history.
“This group is hungry as ever,” Priestman added. “But Christine [Sinclair] she just has that aura about her and she always has.”
Respected by rivals
“She’s a leader and she’s just got such a nose for the game and is always putting herself in the right position,” enthused USA women’s national team goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher ahead of the semifinal game in Kashima, where Sinclair led the Canadians to a first win over the four-time Olympic champion Americans in 20 years.
The last time Canada got the better of their vaunted neighbours to the south was in 2001 – and it was a teenage Sinclair who scored the second goal on that breezy March evening at the annual Algarve Cup in Portugal. That was one year after Sinclair scored her first goal for the Canadian senior national team, in March of 2000 against Norway.
That’s 21 years – two decades-plus – of Sinclair banging in goals in the red shirt and maple leaf insignia of her country.
And even when she’s not scoring, she’s bringing something special to the team. “If you’re a young player, you see the things she’s done and the way she’s done it,” said Priestman, three year’s Sinclair’s junior, about her legend on the pitch. “[She does them] in her humble, hard working way. She’s special. It fills you with confidence when she’s on the pitch.”
Born in Burnaby, in British Columbia, in 1983, Sinclair – who only has one goal so far at these finals – is the picture of modesty. Since playing in the inaugural Women’s U-19 World Cup final of 2002 (now the U-17 World Cup) in Edmonton in front of 47,000 home fans, all the way up to today, she’s never been one to hog the limelight.
In fact, when you’re in a room with her, it might take some time to notice as she tends to prefer the quiet corners. But when she’s on the pitch, Sinclair is impossible to miss. There, she’s the definition of a talisman.
“It’s an absolute pleasure to train with her day in and day out,” Sinclair’s Portland Thorns teammate, and USA international, Lindsey Horan told Tokyo 2020. “She just gets smarter as she gets older. She’s one of the most intelligent players I’ve ever seen and among the best scorers and finishers I’ve ever seen too.
“The coolest part about her is she doesn’t act it. You would never know,” Horan added of the player who will be 42 when the next Summer Games roll around in Paris in 2024. “She’s such an incredible human being. She’s humble and a great teammate and captain and just a very important role model in the team [Thorns]. You can’t overstate the value of having a player like her in a team.”
Absolutely averse to self-promotion, devoid of off-pitch ego, Sinclair will want this Olympic gold medal as bad as anyone ever has. As the consummate competitor, there’s no other option.
Ace up the sleeve
And she’ll know the pressure on her to make her experience pay and deliver the goods in Canada’s first Olympic football gold-medal match. But it must be said, she’s not alone on this Canadian team, who’ve worked together to break the ‘curse’ of consecutive bronzes in the hunt for that singular and historic gold. Jessie Fleming and defender Kadeisha Buchanon have been outstanding and goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe has put in some heroic performances to help put her team into the final – guaranteed of a silver at least.
But having come all this way, these spirited Canadians – and their ambitious coach – won’t want to let slip away the chance to stand atop of the podium as O Canada blares off into the warm Yokohama air.
“The Olympics is absolutely massive in a country like Canada,” said the English-born Priestman, who held the reins of all the country’s women’s youth national teams before graduating from assistant to head coach of the seniors in 2020. “I think there's something about this team particularly. They’ve done very well in the Olympic Games and there's something special about being an Olympian that I can feel and sense with the group.
“It’s some basic sort of values and principles around hard work, respect, humility,” added Priestman who insists her team be "terrible to play" against. “We’re a hard team to beat when you keep these principles strong. You should never see a Canadian jogging in an Olympic Games representing her country.”
All of that is well and good – you need the right mindset and collective labour to get anywhere in this game. But in Sinclair, as Priestman knows full-well, there’s an extra ace to play. “Someone like Christine can bring you to the next level where you can compete in the semifinals and finals of an Olympic Games.”