Toronto Star ePaper

Fairytale ending

Sinclair gets the grand goodbye she deserves at final game


Mostly, I’ll remember Christine Sinclair’s face. Her face as she ran out onto the field for her final match for Canada, flanked by her beloved nieces, with everything in the building focused on her, ready for her. Her wolfish grin as she slapped five with old teammates, then a smile that was almost too much, as if she was trying to hold the emotion away inside of her. It didn’t work.

Her face as the accumulated weight of the moment — of the final night of a towering, peerless career, after everything — started to land and she had to wipe her eyes, then again, then again. Her face after watching a tribute video with women of all ages: she almost immediately had to smile for a photo but her chest was clearly still heavy and her smile looked it was tacked onto someone weeping at a wedding. Her face as she tipped her head back while singing the anthem, her arms around teammates, to keep the tears that were welling in her eyes from rolling down her cheeks.

“It was so emotional,” said Canada’s Cloé Lacasse.

“I just am so appreciative that (Sinclair and fellow veteran Sophie Schmidt, in her final game) got that moment for themselves and for everyone around them,” said midfielder Quinn, who scored the only goal in a 1-0 Canada victory.

“I think it’s been a roller coaster of emotions all week. And I think people were kind of wondering how that was gonna go for them. I know people were getting teary-eyed even in our walkout today. And in the locker room there’s been so many moments that we’ve had today that have been quite emotional. But I think you know, we wanted to get the job done for Sinc and Soph tonight.”

Fairytale endings aren’t how it works, of course. We’re all experienced enough to know in our bones that going out perfectly, as if it were written, is so vanishingly rare. For most athletes, it just ends.

Not on this night. When Sinclair came out to assess the field before the match with a few teammates, defender Vanessa Gilles hugged her from the side, holding on, her head pressed against Sinclair’s shoulder. Every player came out for warmups in Sinclair’s jersey except Sinclair: she wore the No. 13 of Schmidt, one of the program’s greats who is also retiring. Nobody knew she was going to do it.

“Albeit, her shoulders are a bit broader than Sophie’s, so it didn’t fit that well,” said Priestman.

In the stands Sinclair’s family gathered behind the Canadian bench: 43 family members in all, plus the entire soccer teams of Sinclair’s nieces Kaitlyn and Kenzie, and friends as well. The crowd had so many young girls and women in Sinclair jerseys, but grown men, too. With a Canucks game next door, they wound up with 48,112 in the building. Great crowd.

The ceremony, too, was grand. 190 youth soccer players were led onto the field, one for every Sinclair goal for Canada; her family members were led to the sideline. The other 10 Canadian starters came out with the Australian team, and then Canadian flags sprung up and10 members of the 2012 Olympic bronze team lined the entry to the field. Goalkeeper Erin McLeod, who has retired, was introduced; then Schmidt, to another cheer. They danced and hugged.

And then came Sinclair, the woman who never wanted any attention, in what must have been something close to her worst nightmare. She was flanked by her nieces, and after she cleared the entry cordon she wrapped her arms around their shoulders and made her way to the middle of the whole thing.

And then they played the 331st and final Canada match of Christine Sinclair’s life. It wasn’t the romp against the Aussie B-team from Friday night outside Victoria; it was tight, tactical football. The crowd was encouraged to stand in the 12th minute and they did. They cheered every time Sinclair touched the ball but she didn’t touch it much, playing up high.

But then Canada forced a corner and the ball came in from Jessie Fleming, who was Sinclair’s roommate when she first arrived with the national team, and after a few days Sinclair went to Canada Soccer staffer Maeve Glass and said, “can you put me with a roommate who talks?” Glass notes with a laugh that was exactly how quiet Sinclair was, when she arrived.

The play was designed for a Sinclair header but it was too high, or she can’t jump the way she used to. Sinclair recognized that and redirected it to Kadeisha Buchanan on the far side of the box instead, and Buchanan hit the crossbar but Quinn was there for a header in the 40th minute. 1-0, Canada.

And in the 57th minute — halftime plus Sinclair’s No. 12 — Schmidt stood at the sideline and it was time to go. On the way off Sinclair was stopped by teammates and by some Australian players; she hugged Quinn and said, “thank you for scoring.” It took two minutes for Sinclair to reach the sideline.

Sinclair and Schmidt are the most beloved members of the group; they first played together 17 years ago. Schmidt has been Sinclair’s best friend though all of this careerending hoopla. Sinclair slipped the captain’s armband onto Schmidt and hugged her old teammate and wiped her face and then clapped to the crowd. Those were the first few moments of her new life.

“I mean honestly, just joy,” Sinclair said, when asked by TSN’s Claire Hanna what she would remember. “I’ve done everything I can on this national team. I’m 100 per cent satisfied and content. To go out with a win in front my friends, in front of my family, honestly, it’s been the perfect night.”

She also looked around and said, “at London in 2012, our goal was to inspire a generation. Looking around this stadium, seeing all the young girls, all the young boys, it’s like mission accomplished.”

For Canada, Christine Sinclair is preserved in amber now; it’s all done. She will play one more pro season in Portland, and then comes the rest of her life. She’ll have to put that bottomless drive and competitive spirit somewhere. That won’t be easy.

But she will get to carry this night with her: the goodbye that almost no athlete gets, surrounded by love and affection and the product of your life’s work. Saying goodbye to great athletes at the end is tricky: usually they’re diminished, and it’s hard to get it right.

They got this right. We should all be so lucky.





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