WEATHER ALERT

Soccer stars continue to inspire Stress need for professional women's league in Canada

For nearly a decade, Desiree Scott had visualized just what the moment would look like. Feel like. Sound like. And there were times, no question, where the Winnipegger wondered if it would all simply remain locked in her head, a figment of her vivid imagination.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/08/2021 (484 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

For nearly a decade, Desiree Scott had visualized just what the moment would look like. Feel like. Sound like. And there were times, no question, where the Winnipegger wondered if it would all simply remain locked in her head, a figment of her vivid imagination.

Heartbreak in London in 2012. More disappointment in Rio in 2016. A 2020 Summer Games delayed by a global pandemic. And then, one year later, an all-too-familiar foe once again standing in their way.

But all the scheming and dreaming, all the training and sacrificing and blood, sweat and tears left on the field and in locker rooms around the world paid off in an epic way last week. Scott, along with her teammates on the Canadian national women’s soccer team, had finally reached the pinnacle of their profession.

They were Olympic gold medallists.

REUTERS Julia Grosso of Canada celebrates with teammates after scoring the winning penalty in the shootout against Sweden. (Carlos Barria / Reuters files)

“I had totally pictured it. But I don’t think anything could compare to the final minute that whistle blew,” Scott, 34, told me Tuesday afternoon in a telephone chat from her Winnipeg home, mere hours after returning from Tokyo to a hero’s welcome at James Richardson International Airport. “I screamed. I fell to my knees. Nothing I’ve experienced could compare. To get a result like this is incredible.”

Canada is coming off its best Summer Games ever, at least for a non-boycotted event. It was the women who led the way, capturing 18 of the country’s 24 shiny trinkets, with a group of homegrown soccer stars putting an exclamation point on a performance for the ages.

“The belief never wavered,” said Scott. “But to see the growth that our team has developed is incredible.”

It was anything but easy. After beating Chile 2-1 sandwiched in between a pair of 1-1 ties against Japan and Great Britain during the preliminary round — both courtesy of late goals they surrendered — they outlasted Brazil in the quarterfinal courtesy of a 4-3 decision in penalty kicks.

That set up yet another date with the powerhouse Americans, who always seemed to be standing in their way to success. Scott experienced that at her first Olympics nine years ago, dropping their semifinal match against the U.S. in controversial fashion. A late 3-2 lead was wiped out by a dubious handball call that led to Abby Wambach’s tying tally, and then Alex Morgan scored in extra time to complete the comeback. Canada went on to capture bronze by downing France, but it was bittersweet to say the least.

Canada is coming off its best Summer Games ever, at least for a non-boycotted event. It was the women who led the way, capturing 18 of the country’s 24 shiny trinkets.

“That was the starting point of where this program wanted to go,” Scott said of the 2012 experience. “It kind of planted the seed.”

Her team won another bronze medal four years later in Brazil (they lost to Germany in the semi-final), which was the basis for this year’s team motto: “Change the colour.” And they guaranteed that would be the case by vanquishing their southern rivals 1-0, courtesy of a penalty kick by Jessie Fleming in the 74th minute of the semifinal.

“For our entire time, beating the Americans, at the time, felt like our final,” star captain Christine Sinclair admitted Tuesday in a Zoom chat. “Some of our players had been on the team for 15, 16 years and never beaten them. But in that locker room immediately, people were like ‘Well, we’re in the final. We’re not just satisfied with that. Once you’re that close to gold, we knew we would be devastated coming home with silver.”

That set the stage for the thrilling final last Friday, in which Julia Grosso scored on a sixth-round penalty kick to defeat Sweden. Consider this: Fleming, 23, and Grosso, 20, have pointed to that 2012 performance by Canada as the spark for their own passion for the sport, watching it as children and visualizing one day wearing the national colours on the biggest stage. Scott, who has become a good friend and mentor to Grosso, is one of just four players remaining from that squad, along with Sinclair, Sophie Schmidt and Erin McLeod.

And that might just be the biggest takeaway of all here. This triumph goes beyond both the pitch, and the present, with a “paying it forward” mentality setting the stage for hopefully more success to come. The likes of Scott and Sinclair aren’t content with just being a nice, happy story for a few days, only to fade into the background.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Desiree Scott, and her gold meda,l were greeted at the Winnipeg airport by her brothers Nick, left, Deejay, right, and her sister-in-law Dina and nephew Kingston Monday.

Both women spoke extensively about the need for a professional women’s league north of the border, perhaps starting with a couple Canadian franchises in the National Women’s Soccer League and building from there. Currently, all 10 franchises are in the U.S.

“Having three Olympic medals now, having just won a gold medal, I think we’re the only country in the top ten to not have some sort of professional environment for their players to play in. It’s time for that to change,” said Sinclair, 38, who plays for Portland in the NWSL and isn’t sure how much longer she’s going to stay in the game or whether there’s one more Olympics left in her.

“We’re hoping that this platform will give us the opportunity to start that change and plead to Canadians that have the ability to make the difference to invest in women. The young little kids, they deserve to be able to go watch their heroes on a weekly basis, not just once every four years.”

The key, as almost always is the case, is money. But Sinclair pulled no punches, suggesting it’s high time that happened.

“Honestly, it just takes some wealthy individuals within Canada willing to invest in women’s sports, and women’s soccer. Individuals do that on the men’s side, companies do that on the men’s side all the time and are willing to lose millions of dollars. I think within Canada it’s just finding people willing to do that on the women’s side of the game. To find some people with some deep pocketbooks willing to take a chance,” she said.

“We have a unique platform. To be able to play on the world stage and represent Canada. And now I think it’s only going to be bigger 10, 15 years from now. That next generation of kids who watched Canada win gold in Tokyo will be on the national team and hopefully it will bring more opportunities to the young kids. The young girls especially.”

Scott will now spend a week around here visiting family and friends and trying to catch her breath before heading back down to Kansas City to complete the NWSL season with her club team. She hopes those who come after her, the next Jessie Flemings and Julia Grossos, are able to plant their professional roots a bit closer to home while visualizing, and ultimately accomplishing, their own magic moments.

“The veteran players on this (national) team have been working for years to get a professional league. Now, you can’t ignore what this country can do and the talent that’s in it,” she said. “It’s really important to give the younger generation something to aspire to in their own backyard.”

Thanks to Scott and her teammates, a major step has been taken in that direction.

“It’s a feeling of immense pride. It’s incredible to be a woman doing that, and setting the stage to be a positive role model,” said Scott. “I’m hoping that this can inspire the younger generation to dream big and see what they can be.”

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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