By Steve Milton/Hamilton Spectator
COVENTRY What really made this so memorable, as in all great drama, was the complete and utter unexpectedness.
Not just in the final line of the final scene of the final act, but through the entire play.
Canada’s shocking — and there is no other word for it based on the balance of play — 1-0 victory over traumatized France in the Olympic bronze medal game Thursday concluded what was a year-long oeuvre of flabbergasting plot lines, full of twists and turns until the last, and least predictable, development.
It is already a national iconic image: Diana Matheson’s rolling shot entering the French net in the 92nd minute of a game so one-sided the other way that it would have been pulled off the Vegas board by halftime.
And for the second time in four days a Canadian game ended with one team shrieking in disbelieving joy and another writhing on the turf in agony. Only this time, it was not the Canadians with their hands clawing at their heads in horror.
“There are some bronze medals which feel like gold,” Canadian paddling coach Scott Oldershaw had said the day before. He was referring to his son Mark’s canoe bronze, but the description is even more appropriate on this one. Clearly, this was the biggest moment in Canadian soccer history.
It was only a year ago that Canada had been thoroughly dissected 4-0 by France in a World Cup from which they exited after three straight losses. Could have been the same score, same winner, Thursday as the Canadians got across midfield only twice in the second half …. but once was all it took.
“After the World Cup I thought we were done,” said Ancaster’s Melissa Tancredi, the tournament’s co-leading scorer through the round-robin and one of a large corps of veterans who have been at the heart of the national program for years.
“I thought this team…..that was the lowest we ever hit as a team, as an association, and I think it was very hard to come back from that.
“What a turnaround, we’re happy to do it for this country and this sport.”
Soccer, its believers say, is a cruel sport. Justice is not always evenly distributed, but Canada winning when they probably should have lost had a karmic balance to it. They had lost a chance to play for a gold medal when the U.S. scored in added time after extra time in Monday’s semifinal, when the match would have been Canada’s in regulation had there been traditional refereeing.
“I just think we knew we deserved something and we deserved to put the best effort we could on that field even though we were just gutted and had gonzo in the tank,” the totally drained Tancredi said after the game.
“I couldn’t believe it”
Tancredi had exhausted even the fumes she had been running on all game and was removed in the 78th minute in favour of Brittany Timko by coach John Herdman, who can write his own ticket at Soccer Canada now.
The team’s dominant physical presence, and striker of four goals in the first three games, Tancredi was spent after the U.S. heartbreak, as so many Canadians were.
Christine Sinclair, who cemented her place as the greatest Canadian player ever, and one of the greatest in the international game, said that her team thought the emotion of a bronze medal match could carry them through but to their dismay, and fright, they realized before halftime that it could not. The French admitted they sensed the fatigue, and pressed and pressed in the second half, but hit a post, a crossbar, sent several open shots high, were stymied by Canadian keeper Erin McLeod and had a goal stolen by an alert clear at the line from Desiree Scott.
“It was the aftermath of me playing 90-minutes in most of these games,” Tancredi explained afterward. “Yesterday I didn’t even think I could run today. I was just thinking ‘How am I going to pull this through?’ I didn’t signal to the bench, but I think my body did.
“I was thinking , ‘Did I give enough, honestly. And could I have given more?’ But I was done.”
She credited Herdman for turning to Timko’s fresh legs, which had an impact on Canada getting quickly down field for the medal-clinching goal. After some rare, for this game, four-station passing and a bad bounce for the French, Matheson swiped home Canadian history.
“I freaked,” Tancredi admitted.
“This team has been through every single emotion for the past 10 years. We’ve been the underdogs for the past 10 years as well, even though we’ve been ranked in the top 10 in the world. What a way to turn it around.”
Tancredi says she needs to take time off to finish her chiropractic degree, “Finally … and then hopefully come back to this team, whether as a player or staff member.
“I just knew this was my last Olympics and the emotions just swept over me. There’s another World Cup coming to Canada (2015), a huge World Cup. And I would love to be here for that, no matter what kind of role.”
That World Cup in Canada, staged just before the Pan-Am Games so there will be no game in southern Ontario — suddenly takes on a whole different tone.
The lingering effects of the Olympic semifinal, one of the greatest, if not THE greatest women’s football game ever played, will dramatically spike fan interest.
Herdman says that now that the national team has taken a giant step forward, humiliation in the World Cup to the Olympic podium in one year, it must not only maintain that momentum but try to close the gap on the superb and deep Americans. He wants a U.S.-Canada final in 2015, with Canada on the winning side.
The combination of a bronze medal totally unanticipated at the start of the tournament by anyone outside the locker-room, and a World Cup in Canada should stimulate the further growth of the women’s game in Canada. (Not to mention pressuring the men’s program.)
“It’s a crazy feeling, a dream come true,” Tancredi said. “I’m happy we could do it for Canada. This team was such a special team I’m happy we could bring something home.
“And hopefully little girls see it and want to do the exact same thing.”
They already do.