The Women’s National Team Taught Canada How to Be a Soccer Country

The men’s team has made it to the FIFA World Cup. But it was the women’s team that helped them get there

A crowd of soccer fans holding Canadian flags.
(Photo by Frank Gunn)

Alphonso Davies hunted the ball, running after it so fast he would have received a ticket in many school zones. It was October 13, 2021, on a breezy night at Toronto’s BMO Field, and Davies, the then twenty-year-old Canadian phenom, was about to do something truly special. It was a cagey game between Canada and Panama, one of dozens of crucial matchups among teams from North America, Central America, and the Caribbean all vying for four coveted spots from the region at the 2022 FIFA World Cup. The game was tied 1–1 well into the second half.

In the sixty-sixth minute, the ball was cleared out of the Canadian end, and a Panamanian defender appeared fine with watching it head toward the touch line. Davies was not. He ran a third of the field’s length, reaching a top speed of 37.1 kilometres per hour, to then deftly pluck the ball almost between the legs of the defender to keep it inbounds by a hair. With the ball at his feet, Davies turned to goal, dispatched a defender, and then shot across his body, freezing the Panamanian goalkeeper. The ball rippled the back of the net, the crowd jumped to its feet, the announcer was uproarious.

It was the kind of goal that was instantly etched in the memories of the 26,622 fans who were in attendance that night and the many thousands more watching on screens around the country. In that single, radiant flash, Davies seemed to embody the spirit of the team during an unlikely run to qualify for the World Cup—driven by skill, of course, but also relentlessness, confidence, and belief. Moments like that goal are crucial for the sport—for any sport—both on and off the field: they ignite something within fans and nonfans alike that is beyond heart or mind or emotion or reason. Moments like that goal inspire kids to head out with a ball and some friends, mark a pair of goalposts with their backpacks, and try to recreate it.

Iconic moments like this are like mass conversions at a megachurch. Laypeople watch, find unexplainable rapture, and become followers. That’s how fandom starts, and that’s how it builds.

Some moments have come from pure awe at what we’d just witnessed: Dutch centre-forward Robin Van Persie’s meme-generating, diving header at the 2014 World Cup. Some have come by continental jubilation: South Africa’s Siphiwe Tshabalala scoring the inaugural goal at the 2010 World Cup, the first time the tournament had been held in Africa. Some moments have been sparked by shock: France’s Zinedine Zidane, who built a career on quieter moments of mastery, headbutting the chest of an opponent in the waning minutes of the final game of the 2006 World Cup. And some have been sparked by otherworldly skill: Argentina’s Diego Maradona dribbling across two-thirds of the pitch, all the while humiliating half of England’s team, to score in the 1986 World Cup.

For the Canadian men’s soccer team, moments like these have been virtually nonexistent. Only one player on the current national team, Atiba Hutchinson, was alive when the men’s team last played in a World Cup, in 1986, in which the team didn’t win a game or score a single goal. Apart from a flash in 2000, when the Canada men’s soccer team won the CONCACAF Gold Cup, it’s entirely possible that a fan’s entire emotional journey following the team for the past few decades would not have been defined by a series of transcendent, iconic moments representing the gamut of human expression but by one consistent feeling: apathy.

National iconic moments in the sport, rather, came from a different team wearing the same red and white. While the men’s team was quietly suffering, losing, yearning to pass that elusive global threshold, the women’s team was changing the game and transforming the landscape of Canadian soccer.

I’ve been following Canada’s women’s soccer team for most of my life, more closely than any other sports team I’ve been a fan of—more than my Arsenal FC, more than my San Francisco 49ers, more than my Chicago Blackhawks. My older sister played for the national team, beginning in 1999 and culminating at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. More times than I can remember, I woke up in the small hours of the morning to catch a game being played on the other side of the world. I was a little kid then, bleary eyed and yet punching the air and waving a flag and jumping up and down on our pull-out couch and cheering so loudly I surely must’ve woken the neighbours.

I’ll never forget 2002. That summer, Canada hosted the FIFA U-19 Women’s World Championship, a tournament that some say “changed Canadian soccer forever.” (While teams are formally categorized as “men’s” and “women’s,” not every player identifies as either gender.) On the afternoon of September 1, Canada played the US for the trophy in front of nearly 50,000 fans—a number that shocked then FIFA president Sepp Blatter: “What they have realized here is extraordinary in the twenty-seven years I’ve witness FIFA events. It goes under the skin. It gives goose pimples. This whole event has been ballistic.” It was the second most attended soccer game, of either men’s or women’s, in Canada ever and, according to FIFA, still holds the record for the most fans ever to watch one of its youth women’s games anywhere. Despite losing the final, these teenagers, including my sister, some of whom were still in high school, hooked a country and never let go.

The decade that followed saw a global surge of women’s soccer, with countries developing national programs and competition increasing around the world. For Canada, the women’s national team won gold at the CONCACAF tournament in 2010 and gold again the following year at the Pan American Games—setting the stage for the 2012 Olympic Games in London, UK, where came one of the most iconic moments in Canadian sports.

On August 5, Canada and the US met, once again, in the semifinals. The winner would play for gold and silver; the loser for bronze or nothing. Pat Kondzella, for the Bleacher Report, later called the match “one of the best games ever played. Men. Women. Super Bowls. World Series. Stanley Cups. You can put this game up against all of these staples of American sports, and you could make a great case that USA vs. Canada stacks up against, and maybe even surpasses, the most exciting games ever played.” It was that and more: a game that marked the pinnacle of one of Canada’s greatest athletes, long-time national team captain Christine Sinclair, who scored all three of Canada’s goals; a game marked by controversy and confusion over a late call by the referee that gave the US a tying goal; and by a series of comebacks and an overtime that left many viewers nail-less.

In any game, in any sport, you can’t ask for more drama and suspense, more shock and awe, more elation and heartbreak, depending on whose colours (or colors) you cheered for. I can still recount its key moments from memory. Canada lost but went on to rally from such a gutting defeat to beat France with a last-minute goal by Diana Matheson, another stalwart of the Canadian roster, to earn bronze, Canada’s second Olympic medal in soccer ever. (The first one was in 1904.)

Nine years later, amid lockdowns and isolation during the Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, Canada avenged that loss against the US by beating them in a similar matchup and booking a spot in the gold-medal game. The most indelible moment of that tournament, in my mind, came in the middle of that match against Sweden. While the referee was making a decision on whether to award a penalty shot to Canada, Sinclair—who had just played in her 300th game for Canada—held the ball; presumably, every Swedish player, and everyone watching, assumed she would take the shot. Then, as Sinclair stepped toward the spot, she handed the ball to twenty-three-year-old Jessie Fleming, a rising star on the team. It was a subtle moment many likely missed watching on TV, a passing of the metaphorical torch from the older guard to the newer, a transfer of trust, a sign of how far this team had come from being driven and dominated by a single player. It was a subtle moment but one that said more about the future of Canadian soccer than any I’ve seen.

Canada won gold. In soccer. I cried. I watched Sinclair—who was nineteen during that breakout 2002 tournament—celebrate nearly two decades later with an Olympic gold medal. I wasn’t alone. While more than 4.4 million Canadians watched at home on the CBC, no fans were in the stadium that night in Tokyo, that second summer of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some might have seen that victory as anticlimactic: to win gold without a crowd watching and screaming. But, in a way, it was perfect: the exuberance and exaltations of the team weren’t muffled by the screams of a jubilant horde. We screamed at home, we cried at home. They screamed on the field, they cried on the field—and we heard it all.

It may be impossible to categorically link the long-time success of the women’s team with the fresh, blossoming success of the men’s. Much of the men’s team’s development over the past decade has undoubtedly been due to several gardens of growth: the surging quality of Major League Soccer (MLS) in Canada and the US, more Canadian players being trained in Europe, more funding being poured into both grassroots teams and international squads. It may not be quantifiable but the profound impact our women’s team has had on the country’s overall development as a soccer nation exists and matters. With each moment they gave to us, Canada grew as a soccer-loving nation.

Time and again, our women’s national team has outperformed, overperformed, exceeded expectations, and arrived and delivered exactly what was needed when we didn’t realize we needed it. The men have finally reached the greatest stage once again; the women have taught us how to support them. They gave us moments to remember, players to idolize, games to recall from memory, and, above all, a story that helped define this country’s international game and those who adore it.

Alphonso Davies has offered one iconic moment for men’s soccer out of nothing, one that instantly became a symbol: even when the ball, the goal, feels so far out of reach, you can still ignite a country in rapturous unison with a single moment of absolute brilliance. I hope that whenever the final whistle is blown for Canada and this wonderful, surprising, elating run comes to an end, that what transpires on the grass will leave us feverously recounting another iconic moment for years. Maybe it will be a sensational expression of skill. Or maybe it will be something more political—like an act of solidarity or a bold expression against the human rights abuses in Qatar. Or maybe it will be when we score our first ever goal in a men’s World Cup or even win our first game in that tournament of tournaments.

This past March, I stood next to a friend, high in the stands at BMO Field, watching the men’s team play against Jamaica in the final home game in the long qualification series for the World Cup. It was well below zero, a fierce wind ripping off Lake Ontario and cutting through the stadium, through our jackets, to our bare skin. Nothing could warm us: no blowing into hands, no stamping feet, no shrugging. Then Canada scored, and scored again, and won 4–0. That did it: the men’s team clinched its spot in the World Cup for the first time since 1986. I remember saying to my friend, over and over again, “I just can’t believe this is happening.”

Belief is crucial to any sports fan. It makes us do things like take cross-city or cross-country or cross-continental pilgrimages to watch twenty-two strangers kick a ball around for ninety minutes. We do all these things because we’re desperate to bet on the chance of witnessing an iconic moment. We do all these things because we hope to be rewarded by a random point along the euphoric and devastating and utterly addicting spectrum of emotions that is fandom. Our women’s team has long supplied that belief; in our men’s, I can feel it growing.

Harley Rustad
Harley Rustad (@hmrustad) is a senior editor at The Walrus and the author of Lost in the Valley of Death: A Story of Obsession and Danger in the Himalayas (2022) and Big Lonely Doug: The Story of One of Canada’s Last Great Trees (2018).