I will start by asking: can one really, unconditionally support a team that isn’t even a primary colour? YES, ACTUALLY. I am a born and bred Canadian. I look amazing in red and white. I speak French, I love poutine. I have played ice hockey and I understand that the Star Spangled Banner is really a lament about the failed attempt to take over Canada. But I also understand the power and pride that comes with Oranje football.
Before this game, I felt really strongly that the group stages match up of the Netherlands and Canada would be Canada’s most difficult match yet. And true to predictions, until this game, Labbe did not actually receive a challenge or direct shot on net for roughly 190 minutes of play.
As the game begins, I am uneasy but I assume it might be because of how sick I am. After returning from France last week, I picked up a horrible viral illness and am now feverish, contagious and miserable. But it might be my worries about the Dutch exacerbating my condition.
The 2017 Euro Champions have a lethal attacking line that consists of all-time leading Dutch scorer Vivianne Miedema, Lieke Martens, and the incredible Shanice van de Sanden, herself a recent UEFA Champion and teammate with Canada’s stalwart defender Kadeisha Buchanan at Olympique Lyonnais.
Coach Kenneth Heiner-Moller puts veteran Allysha Chapman on the back line to manage van de Sanden. Canada’s youngest superstar Jordyn Huitema is up front to start. I always rely on Janine Beckie and Ashley Lawrence for tenacity. Sports are weird sometimes. Emotionally investing in people you don’t know is a big step. I can say I know of the players; I interviewed Ashley Lawrence after the Canada-Mexico friendly in May and truly felt that my questions were life changing for her, too. And in fact, my first stop after arriving in Paris was Sephora to purchase some goodies for my kid from the Paris Saint-Germain makeup line that Lawrence and her club teammates model.
But the reality is that you are believing in something that you only know in your heart is true - even when your chest is tight with asthma. Maybe that’s why football is likened to faith; you follow and sometimes blindly. I trust this team but I would be naive to say that I wasn’t bracing for a series of sharp attacks from the cheetos-colour side.
My nerves are not calm. My breathing is not steady. Not only because of the wicked flu and cough I am suffering from, but because this game is just making me feel discomfited.
I watch a hearty rendition of the national anthems and realize how tall Sinc actually is, as she is standing beside Labbe, one of the tallest on the team at 5’9”. I see our dedicated captain and hope that during this match, she might actually inch closer to beating Abby Wambach’s record of 184 goals - the most scored by any international player.
In the first minute of play, when I’m still settling down with a steaming mug of chai with extra cloves and ginger because my throat feels as gross, messy, and raw as a VAR decision, I see a determined Janine Beckie racing towards the net. In an instant she’s brought down and before I can muster a cough, the official very decidedly calls a penalty on the Netherlands. At 59 seconds in. I’m so excited I almost scald myself with chai, but manage to sit still to watch our captain walk to the penalty spot.
This is one of the moments Canada has dreamed about. Sinclair is the athlete we all want to be: she’s tough, she’s a sincere leader, and she talks about her team above herself. One round in the mixed zone and seeing her teammates talk about her influence on them can be more than enough to convince any hater of women’s sports that she belongs among the sporting legends of this land. She turned the stereotype of a frigid land of hockey players and beer into a place known for women’s soccer and all of its potential. And she did it without fanfare.She did it the way Sinc does, with determination and with action - and a legendary face mask when her nose broke. (Disclaimer: I cry every time I see this spot.)
Captain Sinc, the most beloved and majestic footballer Canada has ever produced is about to score. I feel a sweeping wave of...oh wait.
VAR is going to re-check the referee’s decision because the second official decides that she wasn’t sure that the penalty was not as egregious as we all know it was, nor was it in the box, as we saw it was. Beckie is not a diver. She isn’t a men’s player from La Liga. She is going to score or get a shot on target. After what seems like a good seven hours (in reality two minutes) we watch Sinc pick up the ball and walk it back for a free kick. I’m willing to wait. Of all the things Sinc is, she is a fighter. As true as the thickest gravy on deliciously cut fries and melting cheese curds. I have to believe there will be something else.
Did that moment affect the rest of the match for Canada?
I will not die on the hill that claims the call ruined the mentality for the players. Most of our goals this tournament were in the second half, so I believe that non-call will not affect Canada’s resilience.
In the 21st minute Huitema shows her prowess and scores for Canada, which is rightly flagged offside. Initially I was excited for her but then saw the replay. Why are the responses of raised flags so delayed? It’s another topic I will be adding to the ever-growing list of complaints I have against these newly interpreted and freshly implemented rules. Above all, I know that I need to relax because Huitema is 18. There will be more from her. Much more. So I apply some more Vicks vapour rub to my neck and tried to calm myself.
Several goal attempts by the Netherlands are in the textbook Dutch style of building through the middle, then a beautiful pass to a sprinting van de Sanden and her usual phenomenal cross to the box. Labbe manages to hold them off. I sit on my bed surrounded by tissues, inhalers and empty mugs ensuring every fleeting ounce of energy I have can be committed to reacting to this match.
In the 54th minute, off a set piece, Anouk Dekker receives the ball with her head and plows it in past Labbe, ending her clean sheet streak. I believe I called my respirologist for an appointment at this time.
I’m not resting easy, and not only because I’m blowing my nose loudly at every juncture, or coughing incessantly. I needsomething magical to happen. Enter Sinc.
Our lofty and efficient captain comes in at the 60th and decisively finds the back of the net. Her reaction is a combination of experience and fierce goal-hunger. Goal number 182 for our co-prime minister! (She shares the co-PM duties with Marie-Philip Poulin, captain of the Canadian women’s hockey team.)
A sense of relief sweeps over me, like when you can breath through your nostrils again after they are blocked for days. But it’s also a reminder to not ever expect less from Sinc. Even when the days seem dark and your head is foggy with exhaustion, she rises out of the ashes like a maple-syrup-doused phoenix and reminds us of why we love her in this beautiful, bold game. She is the best soccer player to ever be produced from this land of beavers and The Tragically Hip. Even though her kit is simple, just like her humble nature, it truly inspires so many generations of athletes. She is fearless and she is accomplished. And she is that much closer to making football history. (Cue Nike spot. Again.)
But the Dutch are not finished attacking and I know this. They are as relentless as the brass instruments their supporters keep playing. I start chewing more cloves. It is widely known in the South Asian diaspora that raw ginger root and cloves are excellent to chew on when sick. And I find myself being distracted by the swollen glands in my sore throat.
While Buchanan and Chapman are doing a great job of holding down the formation and protecting the keeper, I feel like Canada’s middle is a bit choppy. I can’t expect Desiree Scott and Jessie Fleming to be flawless, but the timing of some crucial passes are off, and they seem panicked. I manage to panic right along with them and my wheezing intensifies. I try to shout out my order to the team, as I usually do, but it comes out in weak croaks. My daughter tells me very gently to try to relax. “Your fever barely broke, Mama,” she says. “My fever isn’t the problem!” I whine. “They aren’t edging the ball forward fast enough….” She offers me cut up ginger to chomp away my stress.
I know something will happen and I’m right. 74th minute substitute Lineth Beerensteyn bursts into the six-yard box to receive a perfectly textbook cross from Desiree Van Lunteren. and take the game. This is absolutely normal for the Dutch and something that Canada should have readied themselves for more ardently. The Netherlands are incredible crossers and capitalize on diagonal movement. I am so proud of Canada for this match but their strategy could have been a wee bit tighter and organized, like my schedule of medications and home remedies.
I know we rise together, and that being a Negative Naureen is not helpful. But being prepared for attacking lines and what we know to expect from world-class strikers is imperative. Preparation and continued faith in the CanWNT will help us rise, together. So will more NeoCitran for me.