If England are to reach the World Cup semi-final they will have to subdue a woman who has been described in some quarters as possibly the most important Canadian athlete of her time.
That is not as a big a call as it might be in some countries, but Canada has nevertheless recently produced basketball’s Steve Nash and 2014 Wimbledon women’s finalist Eugenie Bouchard, as well as a slew of ice hockey players who are household names across the Atlantic.
None, though, will be as influential as the captain Christine Sinclair if she leads Canada to World Cup glory in her home city of Vancouver next Sunday. Should that happen, a boom is anticipated in female sports participation, and soccer.
Sinclair, who faces England on Saturday night in Vancouver, has been the face staring from billboards, TV screens and newspapers during this World Cup. It is a familiar face to Canadians – she is also on a postage stamp and Canada’s Walk of Fame.
The forward began playing for Canada at 16 and is still the key player at 31, with 227 internationals and 154 goals to her name. When they were given a penalty in injury time of the opening game, with China holding on for a goalless draw, Sinclair drilled it inches inside the post. “Cometh the hour, cometh the woman,” said Canada’s Geordie coach John Herdman.
The wider world knows her less well, primarily because Canada have rarely featured at the sharp end of tournaments. The notable exception was in 2012 when Sinclair scored a hat-trick at Old Trafford but finished on the losing side as United States controversially won 4-3 in extra-time. In the aftermath of the match, while the normally loquacious Herdman stood outside the dressing room pondering how he would lift his team, Sinclair put her own disappointment aside to give a speech that left her team-mates in tears.
The players, most of whom held Sinclair in awe, felt they had let their star down, that they were unworthy of playing with her. She told them how she had never been more proud of them and exhorted them not to go home without a medal. A few days later Canada took the bronze.
In the Canucks’ first game in the 2011 World Cup her nose was broken by a rogue German elbow. After the blood was wiped away on the touchline Sinclair pushed the medical staff aside and insisted she be allowed back on the pitch.
After she scored she blew a kiss to the bench. For subsequent matches in the tournament she played with a mask, but only because the medics insisted she wear it.
Sinclair, though, was used to adversity. She began playing at four in an under-7s team. Two uncles had played for Canada and her mum was the coach. But even then her mother had began showing signs of multiple sclerosis. She is now in a wheelchair.
Her dog Charlie is named after her coach at university who died of cancer. A private person, uncomfortable with celebrity, it is only in recent years she has begun to use her name to promote her sport.
And the competitiveness is ingrained. In 2009, when a new coach took over the national side and introduced fitness tests Sinclair was average. Sinclair is not used to average. Two months later the squad were tested again and she came top.
The truth is that Sinclair has been average in this tournament. The penalty aside, she has rarely looked like scoring and neither have Canada. Including the spot-kick, they have only managed three goals in four games.
But England coach Mark Sampson will not be taking Sinclair lightly. He knows that, on the big occasion, Sinclair has a habit of delivering.
Young guns: Canada’s rising stars
If Christine Sinclair represents Canada’s older generation, Kadeisha Buchanan and Ashley Lawrence are the future. The 19-year-old pair first played together in the same under-9s girls team.
They have progressed through the regional, then national ranks to make their full Canada debuts on the same day, at 17, and are at the same university. Central defender Buchanan, recognisable by her red braids, has had a superb tournament and midfielder Lawrence a very solid one.Reuse content