It’s always refreshing to see candour from a major sports personality. In a world where a concussion is described as an “upper body injury” and sports teams treat basic information like state secrets, you rarely hear anything that sounds like honesty during a sports press conference.
So, imagine the surprise last week when Canadian national women’s team head coach John Herdman told journalists that his team might not be as good as the press clippings suggest.
“We’ll probably take a step back,” he said when asked about prospects for 2013. He then went on to ask if Canada dropping out of the World Top 10 in the next couple years would matter if the end result was a medal for the women at the 2015 World Cup.
The question was rhetorical, of course. Clearly, a top three finish in 2015 would be the stuff of dreams for Canadian soccer. It’s also highly unlikely without significant changes to the program over the next two years.
The afterglow of London’s bronze is gone. The last flicker faded out with Christine Sinclair’s Lou Marsh Award. Canadians have short memories when it comes to sports that don’t involve rubber discs sliding on ice. So, if there was an opportunity to cash in on that excitement, the moment has likely come and gone.
Instead, it’s time for sober reflection. If one objectively looks at the London run they will see a team that caught a lot of breaks and was incredibly lucky to come away in the third place slot.
They only qualified for the knock-out stage as the third best team in their group. There will be no best third place buffer in 2015. The biggest break they got was the one that went unnoticed: Great Britain upset Brazil 1-0. That allowed a quarterfinal match-up against a team that was mostly made up of English players. Canada is ranked one place above England in the FIFA Womens rankings.
In fairness, the women played their most complete game of the tournament against the hosts to set-up the semi-final drama.
And Christine Sinclair had the game of her life against the Americans. The team also gave up three leads and lost with a fourth goal at the death. It was tremendous drama and terrible soccer.
France out-shot Canada 18-4 in the bronze medal game. The women showed remarkable resilience to survive the onslaught and to grab the medal-winning goal. The narrative that emerged was one that is familiar and comfortable to Canadian sports fans: plucky underdog overcomes long odds to lose gloriously (and, in the end, the Americans stood on top of the podium—so lose they did).
You don’t win many friends by pointing this out. However, if Canada is to take advantage of the once in a lifetime opportunity of hosting a senior World Cup, then those in position to peach hard lessons must be willing to do so.
It appears Herdman understands that. And, that’s significant. In the past, those around the women’s program have refused to listen to dissenting voices. Big results against CONCACAF minnows have been used to gloss over significant flaws in the system and, as a result, the program has stagnated.
In 2003, Canada was coming off a remarkably similar run at the World Cup. After a tepid group stage, Canada pulled a stunning upset over China in the quarterfinal to launch itself into the final four of the tournament.
The Canucks were badly outplayed in that quarterfinal and they didn’t do much better in the semi-final and third place game that followed. Yet, the team took the result to mean that they had broken through and therefore didn’t need to adjust the badly outdated tactics and insignificant talent identification system that fueled the first team.
While Canada sat back and rested on the laurels of a fluke result, other countries like Japan, who Canada beat 3-1 in the ’03 World Cup, were modernizing their approach to the women’s game and moving forward.
A decade later it appears that Canada has finally learned its lesson. In a little over-two-and-a-half-years, we’ll find out whether it was too late.