Sinclair’s legacy so much more than record-breaking goals
Much to the chagrin of Christine Sinclair, the spotlight has been firmly focused on her for this past week.
Just as it has been for the past 23 years of her remarkable international career.
With her final game for Canada set for Tuesday in Vancouver at BC Place (renamed Christine Sinclair Place for the occasion), her teammates and the Canadian media have been waxing poetic about her legacy.
The top international goal scorer of all-time. An Olympic gold medallist. A record-setting 330 caps for her country. Appearances in six Women’s World Cups, scoring in all but one.
“She’s been that person that has put Canada on the map consistently,” John Herdman, Sinclair’s coach with Canada from 2011 to 2018, told TSN. “I just don't know how you can explain it. A young kid coming from Burnaby, B.C., who becomes the world's leading top scorer ahead of her male counterparts – Messi, Ronaldo. It's just unfathomable, really.”
In many ways, everything there is to say about Sinclair has been said. But it still bears repeating, if for no other reason than the fact that she will never say it about herself.
“I don't think you could ever capture all the amount of people and the hearts that she's touched in Canada,” said Carmelina Moscato, Sinclair’s former teammate for over 10 years. “What she has done is so historical that it deserves its time, space, and pause – to not only acknowledge what's been done, looking back 23 years of her career, but also, what does the future look like because she was part of our past?”
Sinclair’s legacy is so much more than her record-breaking goals. In some ways, it’s one that’s quintessentially Canadian, built on hard work, dedication, and above all else, humility.
“She is totally humble, and she'll probably tell you to F off if you talk about how awesome she is,” Erin McLeod, Sinclair’s teammate from 2002 to 2021, told TSN. “A lot of times we think of the G.O.A.Ts as these extraordinary human beings, but that's what was so great about Sinc. She was just like one of us, but she would just constantly be driving for excellence.”
For those closest to her, Sinclair absolutely embodies lofty labels like “greatest of all time” and “legend.”
“It's not only what she did – the accomplishments are one thing to talk about, and there's so many of them, where do you even start? But it's how she went about doing it,” Stephanie Labbé, Sinclair’s teammate from 2005 to 2022, told TSN.
“Her humbleness, the pride that she had, the hard-working attitude, the impact that she had on the people around her, the leadership that she brought. There's just so many qualities.”
Time and time again, when asked about Sinclair, teammates and coaches keep coming back to her humility. She constantly shrugs off her amazing accomplishments and pivots to talk about her teammates instead.
“I don't think I've ever met someone like Sinc who cares about everyone else, and they want to keep the attention on the team and the team success,” Mark Parsons, Sinclair’s coach with the Portland Thorns from 2016 to 2021, told TSN.
“This most unselfish person, who to this day still worries about everyone else, has the best individual record – putting the ball in the back of the net… As a result, the top goal scorer in international football… doesn't get talked about enough.”
Her understated nature off the pitch is also part of what makes her so brilliant on it. She has never been a flashy player. She’s not someone like Brazil’s Marta, taking on players one on one with a dramatic flair.
Sinclair has always done the simple things extraordinarily well, like touches on the ball, vision and awareness. She is the epitome of calm in front of goal, making the hardest thing to do in the game – score goals – look effortless.
“How I'd best describe her is she's just the Rolls Royce version of the women's game,” Herdman said. “She just glides. She isn't a Lamborghini. She's not a Porsche, but she just has this Rolls Royce classiness about her, just glides wherever she goes quietly, but very effectively.”
Perhaps her subtle nature has also impacted her worldwide profile. While she will forever be a household name in Canada and in women’s soccer circles, she remains an elusive trivia answer to the rest of the world.
“It is unfortunate because I sometimes test my football friends here [in Norway]. Like, who is the highest goal scorer in the world? And they come with Ronaldo and Messi and Zlatan Ibrahimovic and all these people, and I say, ‘No, no, no. Christine Sinclair.’ And I [get] question marks,” said Even Pellerud, Sinclair’s first national team coach from 2000 to 2008.
The lack of recognition has led to a shortage of individual accolades in Sinclair’s career. She has never won FIFA Player of the Year or the Ballon d’Or – not even in 2012, when she set an Olympic record with six goals in the tournament. It’s a snub that her teammates, past and present, still aren’t over.
“It's actually a joke,” Melissa Tancredi, who played with Sinclair from 2004 to 2017, told TSN. “If she was American, she would have been known, and she would have been Player of the Year at least three years in a row.
“Canada, we don't really market our athletes well if they're not hockey players, and especially a woman who plays soccer…That's the only time where I think that her Canadian background has let her down.”
But Sinclair has never seemed to care about any of that.
“She's never, ever been, and never will be, the type of person that needs recognition or feels validated by recognition,” Janine Beckie, Sinclair’s teammate since 2013, told TSN.
That doesn’t mean Sinclair doesn’t understand her role and her duties as Canada’s top goal scorer. While she would prefer to avoid the spotlight, she will step up when she knows it’s her time.
“Sincy is someone who will never say no and she's never someone who will hide behind someone else. If she thinks it's got to be her, she will do it,” said Rhian Wilkinson, Sinclair’s teammate from 2003 to 2017.
It’s led to some iconic moments, such as when Sinclair picked up the ball to take a penalty kick in stoppage time of Canada’s opener at the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup. Canada, the host nation, was in a 0-0 deadlock with China. In front of over 50,000 screaming Canadians at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton, Sinclair slotted the penalty home for the game-winner.
But it has also led to heartbreak. At this past summer’s World Cup, Sinclair once again stepped up to take a penalty in the tournament opener against Nigeria. Jessie Fleming had become Canada’s go-to player for penalties after her success in the Tokyo Olympics, but she was injured for that match.
The Nigerian goalkeeper saved Sinclair’s shot, and the game ended 0-0. Sinclair was visibly emotional after the match, and the debate raged on social media about whether she should have been the one to take the penalty.
“There have been PKs that have come up where she hasn't taken them and people have blamed her… and then there's been ones where she's felt like she had to take it, and they haven't gone well, and then she's blamed again,” Wilkinson said.
“She'll take the hits for it, which is hard when you've been an icon for so long. But she is willing to do it for the team, and if that doesn't epitomize her, I don't know what does.”
Sinclair may never have fully embraced being the face of Canadian soccer, but she has accepted the role. It’s a weight she has shouldered since she was a teenager. From making her national team debut at 16 in 2000, to being the star of the 2002 FIFA Under-19 Women’s World Championship on home soil, to helping lead Canada to a fourth-place and best-ever finish at the 2003 World Cup – the focus was always on Sinclair.
“I can tell you that we will never have achieved what we did without her,” Pellerud said. “She was bigger than the game, bigger than the team. And there's not many players you can say that about.”
Despite that one successful World Cup run, Sinclair’s first decade on the national team was unremarkable from a team perspective. But that’s also what makes her individual statistics even more impressive.
By the end of 2010, she had scored 112 international goals with a team that didn’t reach the top 10 in FIFA’s rankings until 2007.
“At times, she played on a team that she was the one carrying us,” Sophie Schmidt, Sinclair’s teammate since 2005, told TSN. “Other players had this amazing team that was able to make them shine even brighter, where I think Sincy was this bright light for us. She was the one leading the charge, and everyone was just trying to keep up with her.”
Through her skill and her determination, Sinclair paved the way for her teammates. As captain, she set the standard in training.
It took over 10 years, but the results started to come.
It began with that historic bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics, a remarkable podium finish from a group of underdogs. And although Diana Matheson scored the goal that clinched the bronze, it was Sinclair leading the way, highlighted by that hat trick against the U.S. in the semifinals, a performance that inspired future national team players like Fleming and Ashley Lawrence.
“She's like a beacon of light, like a hope for us,” said Moscato, who was part of the 2012 Olympic team. “She has shown up for Canada, time and time and time again. I think her dedication and loyalty to Canadians, to wear the badge with honour – I can’t think of anyone else that has done that in the way that she has.”
But beyond the hardware, Sinclair’s performance in 2012 helped bring attention to the sport in Canada, something that had been lacking since she joined the national team.
“I think it really brought a conversation around women's soccer that hadn't existed before and it was very much on the back of that individual performance by Christine,” Amy Walsh, Canada Soccer Hall of Famer, told TSN.
Sinclair’s quest to take the national team to unparalleled heights culminated in Tokyo, with a gold medal draped around the necks of her and her teammates.
“It got to the level where she had such an impact on so many people around her that she was able to get an entire team to the point of winning a gold medal,” said Labbé, the starting goalkeeper for Canada at the Tokyo Games.
“The amount of people she inspired from her individual performances in London that were then on the Tokyo team – I think just that impact that she had, the ripple effect was shown in Tokyo.”
Pellerud put it succinctly: “None of the successes from 2003 onward would have happened without Christine Sinclair.”
But it was more than Sinclair raising the level of her teammates. She gave them extra motivation. They were determined to give her a major tournament title.
“It was just kind of understood that it already means so much, but how much more it would mean for this player before the end of her career,” Beckie said. “I think we all, in that moment, could take a collective, big sigh of relief that we finally got her her world championship.”
But while the medals and the goals will live on in memories of teammates and fans, perhaps her greatest contribution is also the one that’s the most personal to her – leaving the game in a better place than where she found it.
Sinclair has never been overly vocal in her nearly 18 years as captain. She prefers to lead through her actions. But just by the very fact that she is Christine Sinclair, she has learned the power of her voice.
There’s no greater example of that than earlier this year, when Sinclair testified before the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage to speak about the players’ ongoing labour dispute with Canada Soccer over equitable treatment and budget cuts.
“That was one of my proudest moments as her friend, because that did not come easily,” Wilkinson said. “It is against her character to do things like that. But it was the right thing to do. And if it's the right thing to do, she will do it.”
Beckie is a fellow player rep and testified alongside Sinclair. She believes the public will never know all the work Sinclair has done off the pitch to improve Canadian soccer.
“It is almost impossible to describe everything that she does behind the scenes, and just how much she's committed to helping change the landscape of Canada Soccer and our team specifically,” she said. “And to do all of that while performing on the world stage and breaking records and being the best goal scorer to ever exist in the game is something I think very, very few athletes could do.”
Andrea Neil, who played on the national team from 1991 to 2007, also testified before the Standing Committee in a separate hearing concerning Canada Soccer. The former captain admires Sinclair’s willingness to stick her neck out.
“It's not easy as a current athlete to be able to speak up about these types of issues because there is often a very significant power imbalance between powers-that-be and athletes,” Neil said.
“I know when Christine retires… she'll be able to speak to the context with more gravity, as she creates space between her athletic career, and it's going to be meaningful when she does speak. I think there's a lot of power in her words and it makes it okay for the younger players to begin to speak.”
And that encompasses Sinclair’s legacy. It’s one of inspiration.
“She's paved the way for young kids to play the sport in our country,” Labbé said. “She's opened up doors for young girls in our country to not only be able to pursue, to want to play this sport, but to be able to do it in an equal and equitable way.
“That legacy, what she stood for, and what she's had an impact on – it goes far beyond stepping on the field and kicking a ball.”
When Sinclair steps off the pitch one last time, there will undoubtedly be tears as the magnitude of the moments sinks in. For 23 years, Christine Sinclair has been a constant. She has evolved as the game has evolved.
“It's going to be really weird without her,” Beckie said. “I think there's always going to be a void from now on. She's been the centre of the team for her entire career… There will, with not a doubt in my mind, never be a leader like her for our team ever again.”
While there will be sadness over Tuesday’s farewell, there should also be celebration for the player who not only put Canadian soccer on the map, but represented her country to the highest standard wherever she went.
“I just don't know – and I hope I'm wrong – about how many superstar athletes that we're going to get of her ilk again,” Wilkinson said. “A lot of people associate her only with the game, and she's so much more than that… This is a really good woman, and we should be proud that she's Canadian.”