On 9 August 2012, millions of people in Canada and around the world watched the Canadian women’s soccer team take on France for the Olympic bronze medal. While a lucky 12,465 people saw the game live at City of Coventry Stadium, many more watched on television or online.
All were treated to a number of standout moments: Canadian goalkeeper Erin McLeod’s save from Élodie Thomis in the 26th minute, French player Gaëtane Thiney crashing the ball off the left-hand post in the 61st and Thomis rattling the crossbar one minute later, Canadian Desiree Scott blocking a ball on the line in the 70th minute, and teammate Diana Matheson coolly sweeping home Sophie Schmidt’s rebound in the 92nd minute for the game-winning and only goal — all contributed to a Canadian victory and the country’s first Olympic medal in soccer for over 100 years.
Canada’s journey for the bronze began in January 2012 at the CONCACAF (Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football) qualification tournament held in Vancouver, British Columbia. Eight teams from North America, Central America and the Caribbean competed for two passes to the Games in London. Canada breezed through the tournament on home soil, winning all of its games up to the final against the United States.
Two Canadian women would also be included in the roster of match officials for the Olympic soccer tournament: referee Carol Anne Chenard and assistant referee Marie-Josée Charbonneau.
The draw placed Canada in a tough group with Sweden, Japan and South Africa. The Canadians would have to finish in the top two positions in the group to guarantee a place in the knockout stages; only the best two of the third-place finishers in all groups would advance. Canada’s opening game against Japan, the reigning world champion, was hard fought but resulted in a 2–1 loss. It was a creditable result against a good team, but Diana Matheson was blunt: “If you want to progress in this tournament, moral victories aren’t going to get us in the next round. We need points.”
Canada’s second game went better, as they defeated the South Africans 3–0 with one goal by Melissa Tancredi and two by Christine Sinclair. Their final group game was played against a strong Swedish side. Two goals for Sweden in the first 16 minutes put Canada in a bad position early in the game, but they battled back with two goals from Melissa Tancredi, earning a respectable draw and a valuable point. As Canada had finished third in their group with four points, they clinched a spot in the quarterfinals.
Any joy at this news was likely short-lived, however, as they found themselves scheduled to play a strong Great Britain side. The British team had won all of its group stages without conceding a single goal and had a home field advantage; a full house of 28,828 would be on hand in Coventry to roar in support.
However, the capacity crowd was stunned into silence in the 12th minute following Jonelle Filigno’s half volley from Sophie Schmidt’s corner kick. Christine Sinclair added the second goal of the game with a free kick into the bottom corner in the 26th minute. With Diana Matheson and Desiree Scott both battling the British midfield into submission, the Canadians advanced to the semifinals.
Following the game, coach John Herdman, himself a British national, remarked that, “We showed a real discipline today, we handled the big moments. In Olympic terms there were a few personal bests out there, and we'll need a canny few more in the next game against the USA.”
The odds were against Canada from a historical perspective, as the last 51 games against the United States had resulted in 3 wins, 43 losses and 5 ties. However, the Canadians would take an early lead during the semifinal, a game that will likely be remembered for a long time by the 26,630 who were fortunate to see it live at Old Trafford, in Manchester.
Christine Sinclair dominated the game, scoring first, in the 22nd minute, to give Canada the lead — one they would take into the dressing room at halftime. The Americans scored twice in the second half, but Sinclair restored the Canadian lead both times. The game was poised at 3–2 in the 77th minute — the Canadians just needed to shepherd the game to its conclusion (another 15 minutes or so, including added time).
Goalkeeper Erin McLeod was waiting for her teammates to reset positions and looking for a sensible passing option when referee Christina Pedersen called a violation for holding on to the ball for too long (over six seconds). This produced an indirect free kick inside the penalty area, a dangerous situation. On the resulting play, the ball was drilled into the arm of Marie-Eve Nault; a penalty was awarded, which American Abby Wambach converted in the 80th minute. Both teams pushed hard to the end of regulation time (90 minutes) but had to prepare themselves for another 30 minutes of extra time. In the 123rd minute, American Alex Morgan scored the fourth and winning goal.
The Canadians were knocked out of the hunt for gold, their hearts broken by the result. They had to pull themselves together for the bronze medal match against France, a difficult task. But team captain, Christine Sinclair, was determined: “We came here for a medal. It might not be the colour we want, but I don’t think I’d want to be the team that plays us next.”
The 2012 Olympic narrative concluded with Diana Matheson’s goal in the 92nd minute and resulting victory against France. Although few had expected the Canadian team on the podium at the 2012 Olympic soccer tournament, it beat the odds and emerged with a bronze medal. In recognition of her stellar performance during the Games, Sinclair was chosen as Canada’s flag-bearer at the closing ceremonies.
The team’s Olympic journey was followed by millions across the country. An average audience of around 3.8 million Canadians watched the semifinal game against the United States on television — in total, 10.7 million Canadians saw some or all of the match. For the bronze medal game, the average audience was 1.6 million viewers, the total 5.8 million. When Diana Matheson scored the bronze-medal-winning goal, around 3.1 million Canadians were witness.
The team’s Olympic journey transformed Canadian awareness of women’s soccer. In a 2014 interview, Diana Matheson recalled that for a couple of months after the Olympics, grown men would approach her when she travelled on the Toronto subway, “telling me the team made them cry. Post-London was night and day, a watershed moment.”
The team’s first game in Canada after the Olympics was a re-match against the United States at BMO Field in Toronto. A sellout crowd of 22,450 watched the game. According to Sinclair, “you could tell something bigger was going on. The fans were into it. When I was growing up, you didn’t know there was a women’s national team. Now girls grow up dreaming of playing for Canada.”
Soccer is the most popular team sport in Canada; in 2014, 824,181 players were registered at all levels, and over 41 per cent of those players were women or girls. This level of interest and participation should help Canada’s senior sides (women and men) remain competitive at the highest levels.