Canada beats Sweden in penalties to claim women’s soccer gold at Tokyo Olympics
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 06/08/2021 (660 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Changing the colour of the medal was the driving mantra for the Canadian women’s national soccer team heading into the Tokyo 2020, but there was only one they really wanted.
Canada won the gold in the most dramatic of fashions, coming back from a goal down in regular time to force a penalty shootout.
Tied after the first five penalties, goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe saved Sweden’s Jonna Andersson’s sixth penalty. Julia Grosso then stepped up and scored to win gold for Canada.
“I mean it even looks prettier,” captain Christine Sinclair, referencing her gold medal in comparison to the two bronzes she took from London 2012 and Rio 2016, told reporters following the match. “I honestly cannot believe what just happened.”
Sweden dominated through the first half and a goal seemed to be coming when Stina Blackstenius converted in the 34th minute. It was a moment both central defender Vanessa Gilles and Labbe, two of Canada’s most outstanding performers to date, will want back. Gilles gave Blackstenius too much room to latch onto a low ball from her teammate Kosovare Asllani near the penalty spot, and Labbe saw the ball go under her glove from close range.
Canada had fallen behind before in this tournament, but it was critical after Sweden’s opener that the team manage its emotions to get to halftime without allowing the deficit to grow. And it did.
And it was clear from Bev Priestman’s substitutions coming out of the break that the Canada coach knew the team needed to attack, and right away. She brought on Grosso for Quinn and Adriana Leon for Janine Beckie, who had picked up a yellow card in the first half. Within 20 minutes, Deanne Rose, who forced Canada’s game-winning penalty against the Americans in the semifinal, was replacing Nichelle Prince in another forward-thinking move.
Canada was going for it, prepared to leave it all on the line.
It was Canada’s original leader, Christine Sinclair, who earned her team the lifeline it needed in the 67th minute. Sinclair is always a threat, always a player to watch in the box, even at 38 years old, even with her back to goal.
That was clear as Swedish defender Amanda Ilestedt clattered into the back of the Canadian striker in the box. Sinclair look astonished as Russian referee Anastasia Pustovoitova waved off Canada’s shouts for a penalty, sitting on the ground with her arms and legs stretch out in frustration. But the tackle was reviewed by the Video Assistant Referee, who deemed Ilestedt had clipped Sinclair on her left heel.
It was Jessie Fleming who stepped up once again, and it was Jessie Fleming who scored once again. The 23-year-old native of London, Ont. placed her penalty low to the left corner as Swedish goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl jumped high to the right. Of course Lindahl went that way. That’s where Fleming placed her game-winning penalty against the United States just days earlier. But the Canadian midfielder proved her smarts, and proved her cool, to earn her team its much-needed tying goal.
The substitutes and the goal changed the momentum through the end of regular time. The Swedes ran the flanks and whizzed direct crosses into the box throughout the first two-thirds of the game, earning set pieces and causing chaos, at times, in the Canadian penalty area. In the final 25 minutes, Canada kept up with their opponents in a way it hadn’t earlier.
Getting rid of the diamond-like formation Priestman had employed in the midfield prior to the substitutions gave the Canadians more room to run at the Swedes, forcing them back on their heels.
Priestman made a bold play in the 86th, taking off Sinclair. Canada’s captain, the best player this country has ever seen and one of the best ever to play the women’s game, handed the arm band off to veteran Desiree Scott.
She counselled her replacement, 20-year-old Jordyn Huitema: “Let’s f—— go.”
Finishing a game without Sinclair on the field would have been unfathomable not long ago. It was the best decision Friday, when Priestman needed fresh legs in Japan’s oppressive heat and humidity. Canada needed everyone behind the ball as Swedish dominated the second half of extra time and Huitema made her presence known on defence.
The substitution helped Canada give itself a chance in the penalty shootout, which it reached only after a heart-stopping goal-line clearance in the final minutes of open play.
It wasn’t a straightforward shootout. Fleming got Canada off on a good foot when she scored after Sweden hit the post with its opening shot. The Canadians struggled from there. Ashley Lawrence and Leon had their penalty shots saved, while Gilles hit the crossbar. At one point, Sweden needed just a goal to win it. That shot by captain Caroline Seger flew clear over the crossbar and gave Rose a chance to send the shootout to sudden death.
She made no mistake.
Neither did Labbe, who stopped two of Sweden’s six penalties, including Andersson’s in the first round of sudden death. Grosso, 20, stepped up with the gold on the line. Lindahl got a hand to the shot but it was too powerful. Grosso scored.
It meant Sinclair finally reached the pinnacle of her sport in a team competition. It meant Quinn became the first transgender and non-binary person to win an Olympic gold medal, their legacy far greater than what happens on the pitch. It meant all the young girls and boys watching at home in Canada had something to be inspired by, and to aspire to.
“We fought through the whole tournament, we fought tonight and managed to find a way to win,” Sinclair said.
Canada, for the first time in its history, is at the top of the podium, and the top of the women’s game.
Laura Armstrong is a Star sports reporter based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @lauraarmy