Kevin Kapenda, Columnist // Illustration by Heather Haughn
Due to constant marginalization and underinvestment of women’s sports, there are few countries in the world whose most significant athlete is female. Christine Sinclair makes Canada an exception to this rule. Her body of work combined with the impact she has had on the game of soccer globally and in Canada, has put her head and shoulders above most Canadian athletes since 2000. Now in the twilight of her career, the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France is likely to be her last. Despite her forthcoming retirement, her legacy will only grow as soccer continues to tighten its hold on Canada.
Growing up in the late 90s and early 2000s, there weren’t many Canadian soccer players to revere. Furthermore, the absence of MLS teams, the struggles of our national men’s soccer team, and the overall popularity of hockey, related the “beautiful game” to the periphery of Canadian culture. In fact, it was almost viewed as an insurgent sport – a threat to hockey because of its affordability, low barriers for participation and broad appeal. Fears that were insecure of an increasingly diverse Canada and meant to prevent uncomfortable discussions about why hockey was declining, but in the end, were far from misguided. Indeed, soccer would eventually unseat hockey as Canada’s most played sport and never look back – something that Sinclair has certainly contributed to.
If Gretzky was the 20th century sports hero of Canada, Sinclair is this century’s “Great One”. In my opinion, Canada is no longer a hockey country. Its sports landscape is as diverse as its population, with soccer being the only sport that is equally as popular between white people and visible minorities. According to the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, among white Canadians and the overall population (70 per cent of Canada is white), soccer is the most popular sport followed by hockey. However, among first and second-generation visible minorities, soccer is trailed by basketball and cricket. Sinclair is the poster child for Canada’s changing sports culture, not only in terms of what Canadians are playing and watching, but on the gender front as well. While the success of our women’s hockey team has also contributed to the advancement of women’s sport in Canada, hockey just doesn’t have the universal reach that soccer has.
What I appreciate most about Sinclair’s game is how well rounded it is, which is out of necessity in all honesty. Often compared to Wambach, aside from their goal totals and stature, Sinclair couldn’t be more different. A complete attacking player, Sinclair can be deployed centrally as a striker or attacking midfielder or in wide areas. Despite her prolific scoring, Sinclair is typically played in “the hole”, between deep-lying midfielders and a striker, so the team can capitalize on her incisive passing, hold-up play and impeccable ball control. This is rarely talked about in comparisons between her and Wambach, which in my view, is somewhat misleading. Wambach was usually fielded as a striker, playing with legendary midfielders and full-backs whose prerogatives were to create chances for her. Whereas Sinclair has always had the burden of having to score and initiate attacks for Canada from deeper positions. While Sinclair is only 7 goals away from tying Wambach and could realistically achieve this by July 2019, I am always left wondering if she had been deployed as a finisher for most of her career, rather than a creator, would she still be second in goals?
I don’t believe records are the only measure of a player’s career and I have no reservations about calling Sinclair the greatest women’s soccer player of all time. But looking back on the last 18 years, it’s clear that she’s much more than that. For me, she is the greatest Canadian athlete of her time.