YOKOHAMA, JAPAN—Of course she was asked. Christine Sinclair is 38; the 20-year-old who scored the gold medal-winning penalty here Friday night, Julia Grosso, was born a month and a half before Sinclair scored in the last Canadian win over the Americans in a game that mattered, until this week.
Sinclair is the top goal scorer in soccer history, and had just won an Olympic gold medal, and she let out so much joy. Walking away on top is something that is so rare, and she deserves it. So in Yokohama on Friday night, after the match of a lifetime, she was asked if that 2-1 win over against Sweden — that unforgettable, peak-of-the-mountain accomplishment — was the last of her career.
“No,” Sinclair said. “I mean at the very least we have a victory tour. No, honestly, I have been asked that so many times, and I haven’t thought about it. I’m not going to make a decision out of joy or pain depending on how this tournament ended. I never do that.”
That means it’s a decision, though, right? Sinclair has had the most marvellous career; the respect shown by some of the game’s greats was lovely. American Abby Wambach, whose all-time goal record of 184 Sinclair broke last year on the way to 187, was cheering for Canada because of her, and recorded a video afterwards in which she said, “Sincy, nobody deserves it more than you, sister. Awesome.”
Mia Hamm, whose goal record Wambach had broken, tweeted congratulations to Canada, and specifically Sinclair. Sinclair’s younger teammates talked about how much she had meant to them. As Grosso said, “literally, everything.”
But when an all-time great wins late in their career, the immediate impulse is to urge that athlete to retire, to go out on top, to preserve the memory in a glorious amber. And if Sinclair decides to do that, then the enduring image of her final big-time game for Canada will be the penalty she drew that levelled the match in the second half, the headers that cleared away Swedish corners, the way she looked spent when she was subbed out in the 85th minute, and the sheer howling joy that erupted from the greatest of all time when Canada won on Grosso’s final penalty. It would be a fine final picture to paint.
Inside the program, they are publicly urging her to stay. During the post-match press conference head coach Bev Priestman was asked what it meant to coach Sinclair.
“I feel privileged,” Priestman said. “All-time great who’s going to go on for another four years, I can feel it, I can sense it. Listen, I think, yeah, I can see every player did it for them, for their country, but also for an absolute legend. So I feel really privileged.” She mentioned another Olympics, maybe. Sinclair said, “I mean, there’s a World Cup out there.” That would be two and three years away, respectively.
“If it is for her, I mean I hope she stays,” said defender Kadeisha Buchanan. “I mean, she’s the core of a team, a great team captain, and I hope she stays for many, many more. But it’s a way to go out as well, so we’re just super proud of her, and (I’m) just super honoured that I got to play with her.”
Sinclair is sui generis in this country: the great Charmaine Hooper recorded 128 appearances and scored 78 goals, but Sinclair is at 304 and 187, and has travelled further than any human in the game. She is no longer the point of the spear; instead, Nichelle Prince and Deanne Rose — whose laser top-corner penalty in the gold medal game, with elimination looming if she missed, should be on a stamp — and Janine Beckie are the people Canada tries to create space for, or rely on more to create.
Sinclair can still take care of the ball, make sharp plays in small spaces, relieve pressure. She just can’t create space anymore, or find it as easily. But she is comfortable with that. She said she was fine if her job was clearing headers in the six-yard box. She doesn’t care.
“Bev has come in and just changed the attitude of this team,” Sinclair said. “(After the last World Cup in 2019) Bev had instilled this sense of belief, this sense of confidence, this sense of bravery that we hadn’t seen before. And I think we now play to our strengths, we can defend, we’re world class at defending, and then have like 100-metre sprinters up top. We play to our strengths.
“Honestly, that’s something I felt we had with this group. This group is loaded, and I just know I need to do my job. I need to do whatever I can to help the team win, and every game that’s different. I don’t need to play out of my skin for us to win, and it’s great to be part of that.”
Read that again. For years Sinclair carried the pressure that she had to score to carry Canada, and that epic semifinal loss to the Americans at the London Games was the best example: three goals, an all-time performance, and Canada lost 4-3.
Sinclair knows she can’t do that anymore, and she has been fine for a while with laying down that burden. With great athletes, we should honour the back side of the mountain, all the way down. Sinclair can decide to walk, and her legacy is secure if she does.
But the thing with the true greats is they only do this once, and then they’re gone. Sinclair can be a veteran cog on this team for as long as she feels useful if people just choose to remember what she was and appreciate that the arc of an athlete bends down. Let her play every last moment, love the game as long as she wants, until it’s time to go. And only Christine Sinclair, gold medallist, can decide that.
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