MELBOURNE, Australia : Canada’s Olympic champions are heading home from the Women’s World Cup stunned and heartbroken – and still without a medal in the tournament from eight appearances.
The Canadians, who were wildly inconsistent this tournament, crumpled in a 4-0 loss to Australia on Monday that likely robbed talisman Christine Sinclair the opportunity of ever climbing the World Cup podium in her illustrious career.
Sinclair, the face of Canadian soccer for two decades, has not announced her immediate plans, but at age 40 she is one of the oldest players in the game. The end of an era seems imminent.
The seventh-ranked Canadians were considered among the favourites Down Under after their historic gold in Tokyo. But drawn into Group B, the tournament’s “group of death”, the difference that separated the four teams was indeed razor-thin.
Still, Canada’s toughest opponent was themselves. Coach Bev Priestman had said when her rattled team “plays brave” they can be unstoppable. Bravery was scarce supply in Australia.
“I keep saying the word but ‘belief,’ and the group I’ve got in front of me are world class players and can be a world class team. We just need to believe it,” Priestman told reporters after Monday’s elimination.
Canada are the first Olympic champions to be eliminated in the group stage of the next World Cup.
The Canadians opened the tournament with a shaky scoreless draw against Nigeria that saw Sinclair miss a penalty kick.
She has scored more international goals than any player on the planet – 190 – but the enduring image of Sinclair on her knees, face buried in her hands said it was that missed goal she will not soon forget.
Katie McCabe’s stunning direct corner kick just four minutes in Canada’s second game against Ireland had the Canadians looking as forlorn as the sodden weather that night in Perth. But they pulled out a 2-1 victory with a brilliant second half that Priestman hoped was their turning point.
It was not to be, and their disastrous exit in front of a sea of 27,706 green and gold fans – against an Aussie squad missing their top scorer Sam Kerr – at Melbourne Rectangular Stadium will ring deafening alarm bells back home.
Canada have won medals in their last three Olympics, but their best World Cup finish is fourth in 2003 – Sinclair’s debut – in a puzzling lack of results at this tournament. They were ousted in the quarter-finals in the 2015 edition on home soil, and eliminated in the last 16 four years ago in France.
The Canadians’ preparations were also overshadowed by a nasty pay dispute with their federation that Sinclair said in February left her “exhausted and deflated.”
“I’m not going to make excuses,” Priestman said. “I think the team, we did everything we could and I think we can hold our heads up high, the players can, the staff can. We give it our all.
“Has it been a really, really tough year? Absolutely. But we came here tonight thinking we should have been able to win and we didn’t, we have to reflect on that.”
With numerous underdogs performing well at this World Cup, it seems the world is catching up with North America and Europe, who have long dominated the women’s game.
“The group is actually deeper and more talented,” Priestman said. “And I think the game is tighter, it’s closer, it’s finer margins.”
Monday also marked the final Canadian game for 35-year-old Sophie Schmidt, who announced she would retire after this, her fifth World Cup.