August 6, 2012.
A date that is ingrained in the minds of Canadian soccer players and fans.
In front of over 26,000 fans at Old Trafford in Manchester, Canada’s women’s soccer team faced their American rivals in the semifinals of the 2012 London Olympics.
For some, it remains the greatest women’s soccer game in history.
For others, it’s a bitter memory of questionable refereeing decisions and injustice to the Canadian team, which overshadowed a hat trick performance by Christine Sinclair in arguably the best game of her career.
Now, almost 10 years later, the teams are set for a rematch in the semis at the Tokyo Games on Monday.
Ten players remain from that 2012 showdown. For Canada: Sinclair, midfielders Desiree Scott and Sophie Schmidt, and goalkeeper Erin McLeod. For the United States: defenders Becky Sauerbrunn and Kelley O’Hara, and forwards Megan Rapinoe, Tobin Heath, Carli Lloyd and Alex Morgan.
Before you set your alarms for Monday’s rematch, let’s take a closer look at what happened in 2012.
The Canadians were seventh in the world at the time and were coming off a frustrating 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup, where they finished last out of 16 teams.
Head coach John Herdman had been in the role for less than a year when Canada headed to London. Herdman took over from Carolina Morace, who vacated her position after the 2011 World Cup debacle.
Canada kicked off the group stage against Japan, losing to the defending World Cup champions 2-1. They beat South Africa 3-0, with Sinclair netting a brace, and needed a result against Sweden in the group stage finale to secure a spot in the knockout round.
After falling behind 2-0, the Canadians fought back to earn a 2-2 draw versus the Swedes and finished the group stage with five points, enough to advance to the quarter-finals as one of the top third-place teams.
In the quarter-final clash against the hosts, Great Britain, Canada jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first 30 minutes thanks to goals from Sinclair and 21-year-old forward Jonelle Filigno. The team held on to advance to their first-ever Olympic semi-finals.
Meanwhile, the Americans were coming off a disappointing defeat in the 2011 World Cup final to Japan, losing in penalties. Hungry to reclaim the top of the podium, the United States cruised through their group with a perfect 3-0-0 record and had little difficulties in their quarter-final match, defeating New Zealand 2-0.
North American Rivalry
The stage was set for a semifinal showdown between the CONCACAF rivals. The Canadians, as always, were heavy underdogs against the top-ranked Americans. They hadn’t beaten their neighbours to the south since 2001 (a record that still stands), going 0-4-22 against the U.S. during that span.
Canada had already been defeated twice by the United States earlier in the year, losing 4-0 in the final of the CONCACAF Olympic qualifiers and dropping a pre-tournament friendly by a score of 2-1.
American head coach Pia Sundhage had also rubbed some Canadian fans and media the wrong way with her exuberant goal celebrations, especially during Olympic qualifiers.
In the book The National Team, Sundhage simply said, “We score goals and you’re happy.”
Herdman added some fuel to the fire with comments at his media conference the day before the game.
“One of the big threats we’ve got to take care of, and what we’ve paid attention to, is the illegal marking in the box on their corners and free kicks,” he said about the Americans. “Some of the blocking tactics, which are highly illegal – we’ll keep an eye on them in the game.”
The United States were rolling heading into the semifinal. They hadn’t conceded a goal in the tournament since the 14th minute of their opening game against France.
With Japan awaiting in the gold-medal match, many American fans were already looking forward to their team getting revenge against the Japanese for their World Cup defeat a year earlier.
Adding to the stakes: Sinclair and American forward Abby Wambach were both chasing Mia Hamm’s all-time international goal record of 158. Sinclair entered the semifinal with 140 goals, two behind Wambach.
Both teams deployed the same starting lineups that had earned them wins in their respective quarter-finals. For Canada, their front line was bolstered by the 1-2 punch of Sinclair and Melissa Tancredi (who was tied for the tournament lead with four goals), along with Filigno.
In midfield, the Canadians had the steadying presence of Diana Matheson, Schmidt and Scott (in the tournament where her nickname ‘The Destroyer’ was coined).
Canada’s backline had undergone several changes due to injuries. Lauren Sesselmann had transitioned from her usual fullback spot to start at centre-back, alongside Carmelina Moscato, while Rhian Wilkinson and Marie-Ève Nault featured on the outside. McLeod, coming off a clean sheet against Great Britain, started in goal.
“I believe it’s going to be a match of epic proportions,” Brandi Chastain, former U.S. international and NBC commentator, said prophetically before kickoff.
Almost immediately after the opening whistle, the Canadians looked to set the tone. Tancredi, forever earning her nickname of Tanc, was called for a foul after she bodied Lauren Cheney off the ball. Seconds later, the Americans were awarded another free kick for an apparent push to the back of Morgan by Sinclair.
At the Canadian end line, the ball appeared to go off Morgan before going out to touch, but Norwegian referee Christina Pedersen called a corner kick for the Americans. Moscato, who was battling Morgan for possession, threw the ball irritably behind her after she heard the ref’s call.
What would normally be an innocuous decision became the first sign of things to come.
In another confusing call, Tancredi drew a foul in the American end after a tussle with veteran Christie Rampone, even though both were battling for the ball and Tancredi ended up throwing the American defender to the ground.
GOAL – The Canadians struck first. Nault sent a long ball up to Tancredi at the top of the U.S. 18-yard box. Tancredi took a touch and cleverly set up Sinclair with the outside of her boot. Sinclair beat Rachel Buehler, then cut back inside to get around O’Hara before burying the ball in the bottom corner behind goalkeeper Hope Solo.
The Canadian captain celebrated her 141st goal with her arms out wide, as if in flight.
Pedersen called Filigno for a handball inside the American final third, even though the ball clearly struck the top of her shoulder.
Schmidt took the legs out from under Rapinoe, but no call was made. Schmidt was able to regain possession for Canada as Rapinoe appealed emphatically to Pedersen to no avail.
Tancredi was whistled for a foul after Wambach collided with her and fell to the ground. On the ensuing free kick, Morgan connected on a header that just missed the bottom corner of Canada’s net.
Just under five minutes into the second half, Matheson made a sliding tackle on Rapinoe just outside the Canadian box. Matheson didn’t appear to get any of the ball and took out Rapinoe’s legs. Pedersen didn’t call a foul and awarded Canada a goal kick.
“Curious decisions by the referee today,” said then-TSN commentator Jason de Vos.
GOAL – The Americans drew level. In a fitting moment for the Olympic stage, Rapinoe scored an Olimpico – a goal scored directly off a corner kick. She snuck in her shot at the near post with Sinclair, Sesselmann and McLeod all in the vicinity, but none of them were able to prevent the ball from crossing the line.
A ball sent in from Sinclair appeared to strike Rapinoe’s arm inside the American penalty area, but the play went on. Seconds later, Scott was given a yellow card for a challenge on Wambach, and the first sound of boos from the crowd were heard at Old Trafford.
GOAL – A brace for Sinclair. Seconds after subbing into the game for Filigno, Kaylyn Kyle helped to start the play for Canada on the left flank. She passed the ball back to Nault, who fed Tancredi down the line. The Canadian forward patiently cut the ball around Rampone. Sinclair made a run into the box, raising her arm and calling for the ball. Tancredi crossed it in, and Sinclair headed the ball back across goal and into the net.
She was now tied with Wambach with 142 goals, as she blew a kiss and pumped her fist repeatedly in the air.
GOAL – Just three minutes later, the Americans responded. Rapinoe, from the top corner of the box, hammered a shot across goal that ricocheted off the post and in.
GOAL – A Canadian legendary performance is born, as Sinclair completed her hat trick.
Off a corner kick from Schmidt, Sinclair once again connected on a superb header, going back across the net for goal No. 143. Almost looking subdued at first in her reaction, Sinclair ran to the sidelines. Substitute Kelly Parker wrapped her in a hug, as Sinclair raised her arms in the air and yelled emphatically, “Let’s go!” to the crowd. Herdman came over to give his captain instructions as a steely and determined look emanated from Sinclair’s eyes.
“She was untouchable,” Moscato told TSN last year. “She had a focus in her eyes, and an aura about her that was determined to get the job done for her country, for her family, for her teammates. There was nothing that was going to stop that woman that day.”
The moment everything changed.
McLeod had collected the ball and was waiting as her teammates ran up the field. She had just kicked the ball when the whistle blew. Amidst confusion from players, fans, and commentators, the Americans were awarded an indirect free kick.
Many, including McLeod herself at the time, thought she had been called for handling the ball outside the area, which was clearly not the case. But Pedersen had whistled McLeod for delay of game.
Under FIFA rules, a goalkeeper cannot hold onto the ball for longer than six seconds before they must release it. It’s a rule rarely called at any level, let alone during an Olympic semi-final.
It was later revealed that Wambach kept pestering Pedersen about alleged time-wasting by the Canadians. She would loudly count the seconds when McLeod held onto the ball. The tactic worked, as Pedersen made the controversial call.
On the ensuing indirect free kick, Rapinoe hammered the ball into the Canadian wall, which struck Nault in the arm. There was no time for the defender to react as she held her arm tightly to her body, attempting to turn away from the shot when the ball hit her. But there was no hesitation from Pedersen, who signalled for a penalty.
The Canadian players were incredulous. Nault held her arms out in disbelief. Tancredi approached Pedersen, calmly at first. A slight smirk crossed her face, but her eyes portrayed no humour.
“I said, ‘You need to take control of this game. You’re losing control,’” she later told The Globe and Mail.
GOAL – Wambach converted the penalty amidst a mixture of boos and cheers from the fans, and the Americans were once again level.
Instead of being 10 minutes away from a chance at a gold medal, the Canadians were right back to square one.
Schmidt created a late scoring chance after dispossessing Buehler, but she couldn’t beat Solo on the near side. The two sides headed to extra time.
It was a slow and, at times, sluggish start to the first half of extra time. Heavy legs were becoming apparent on both sides, as noted by TSN commentator Luke Wileman.
The Canadians were hobbling to the finish line with penalties on the horizon. Kyle was slow to get up after a slide tackle. Just before that, Scott briefly left the pitch following a hard collision with Heather O’Reilly. Tancredi was seen limping after a challenge. The Canadian players looked to be on their last legs.
GOAL – In the last minute of stoppage time, Canadian hearts were shattered.
O’Reilly chased down a ball on the right wing and floated a cross into the box. Morgan was able to connect with her head, the ball just sailing beyond the outstretched arms of McLeod.
The final whistle blew seconds later, and it was over.
Canadian players collapsed on the field as the Americans celebrated around them. Moscato was on her back, staring blankly towards the sky. Sinclair sat in a crouched position, her hands clasped together in front of her face.
Sinclair crossed paths with Pedersen after the game. To this day, it is not publicly known what Sinclair said, but Pedersen wrote up the exchange in her official match report, and FIFA later suspended the Canadian captain for four matches after the Olympics.
Sinclair did make her feelings public in her comments to the media immediately following the game.
"We feel like we didn’t lose, we feel like it was taken from us," she told reporters. "It’s a shame in a game like that that was so important, the ref decided the result before it started."
As for Pedersen, FIFA, albeit quietly, supported all of the referee’s decisions, but she never worked in another major tournament.
While the United States went on to claim gold over Japan, for Canada, there was a silver lining, or rather, a bronze one. The team defeated France on a late winner by Matheson to earn a spot on the podium.
Sinclair finished with six goals, an Olympic record for a single tournament, which was only just beaten by Dutch forward Vivianne Miedema in the Tokyo Games. The Canadian captain was named the flag bearer for her country at the Closing Ceremony and won the Lou Marsh Trophy as Canada’s best athlete of the year.
But more significantly, that semifinal game and Canada’s subsequent historic bronze medal helped to put women’s soccer on the map in the country. For a team that finished fourth at the 2003 FIFA Women’s World Cup to little fanfare, suddenly the players were met by throngs of fans in airports across the country on their return home.
Their performance helped to inspire countless aspiring Canadian soccer players, including current national team mainstays like Ashley Lawrence. In 2019, the squad from the London Games was inducted into the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame in the team category.
Now, nine years later, the Canadian players have a chance to write a new ending to this story.