(Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
I still can't believe that. I'm sitting in my chair, the sun rising to my left, beating down on a spectacular sunny Vancouver day. A day all the brighter because Canada (Canada!) are Olympic women's soccer bronze medalists.
When I wrote my preview of Canada's path through the Olympics back in July (was it really so long ago), I said that Canada would need just one miracle upset. They got it, through a path tougher and more heart-wrenching than anyone could ever have predicted.
Plaudits and condolences must be given to the French, since we Canadians know how they feel. Those poor bastards; they got off to a great start with a 2-0 lead over the United States then blew it ugly. They hammered an excellent Swedish team in the quarters. They ought to have clawed back two goals against Japan in the semi-final, if there was any justice in the world. Then they missed so many chances to put Canada away in the bronze medal match they could have built a new Eiffel Tower out of the rubber. What an excellent, classy team, packed to the gills with technical talent, who outplayed the defending World Cup champions and a club that just ran like champs with the Americans in consecutive games and finish off the podium for their trouble. No review is complete without complimenting France's élan.
But That Diana Matheson Goal is already nestled alongside Richard Hastings's golden goal and Igor Vrablic's World Cup Qualifying clincher on the Canadian soccer pantheon. My goodness. In spite of their physical exhaustion Canada was starting to rally in the last fifteen minutes; nothing major, it was still France's game to lose, but the ball was spending more time in the French half. The Canadians were exhausted almost from kickoff but the French had good reason to be tired too, and as the game wore on their mental mistakes and physical stumbles started to add up. And Canada had just enough left in the tank.
You could not physically have set this game up for any more of a storyline finish. The aggrieved Canadians, battling against the odds all game against a team which burned them down and pissed on the ashes in the 2011 World Cup. It looked like another shattering game. There was even another indirect free kick in the Canadian box, although this one was at least called correctly.
Then Diana Matheson. A 4'11" woman who missed Olympic qualifying because of a serious knee injury but still hung out with the team because they're the truest band of sisters in Canadian sport. She did anything to help out that qualifying tournament because she just wanted to remain part of the team. She's eloquent, polite, the greatest representative for Canadian soccer you could ask for, one unknown to the general population but strongly admired by Canadian soccer fans. Picks up Sophie Schmidt's rebound and celebrate.
Unbelievable. That bronze medal makes gold look worthless. It was one of the greatest moments in Canadian soccer history.
I'm too happy to analyze coherently. Canada certainly didn't look like medalists for most of the game; they looked like they'd walked from Manchester to Coventry and slept in a dumpster. There was none of the sharpness and aggression we saw in the American game; they just didn't have the guts. Christine Sinclair, in particular, was done (even Superman can't carry an entire country for 210 minutes). It took a few other players, like Desiree Scott, a few minutes to find their legs and even they had to conserve energy. Marie-Eve Nault, who not so long ago wasn't expecting to be on this team, had also run herself into the ground. Fellow fullback Rhian Wilkinson, who played every minute of the tournament, looked it.
So France attacked, particularly in the second half. Erin McLeod made an excellent save on a shot deflected off Carmelina Moscato. Scott cleared one off the line. They hit the post, hit the crossbar, knocked too many just wide for me to count. I was mentally rehearsing the article on how fourth place really wasn't so bad.
The fact that Canada retained the mental discipline to continue attacking France when Gallic legs tired is a tribute to players and coach. Most teams, in Canada's position, fresh off the worst loss in the world and then a hammering from a higher-ranked team, would have thought they weren't good enough even when the French flagged. Canada hadn't beaten France since 2006, when France were nothing like the world power it is today. There was every excuse not to seize that opportunity.
Canada seized it. Half-chances for Brittany Timko, for Sophie Schmidt, a couple promising runs. The pressure on McLeod eased. The Canucks saw an opportunity and grabbed it when by all rights they should have been holding on for extra time. That's what champions are made of.
No tribute is too glowing for these women, who are showing more skill and determination than ever in an era where the women's game is at its very best. The question will be keeping this spirit and level of intensity alive through 2015; after the American game some fans were already worrying that John Herdman might become too big for us to keep. But this was not merely the first step on a long road: it was a leap, a massive long jump which hurled an oft-forgotten national team back into Canada's spotlight in the most deserving, glorious manner.
For those of us who've been following this team for years, and for those who packed BC Place's lower bowl to the gills to cheer these ladies on in Olympic qualification, this is impossibly beautiful. But plenty of other Canadians who are not women's national team or even soccer fans are celebrating as well. To you I say: welcome. Enjoy the party and stick around after. It's not always this good, but by God the ride is worthwhile.