Sinclair was brilliant from the beginning
Even Pellerud had officially been on the job as the new head coach of Canada women’s soccer team for just a few months in early 2000 and knew he had a lot of work to do.
He had come from a very successful tenure with the women’s team of his home nation of Norway, leading them on a championship run at the 1995 FIFA Women’s World Cup and a bronze medal at the inaugural women’s soccer tournament at the 1996 Olympics.
But Canada was a different story. The team was coming off a forgettable showing at the 1999 World Cup under Pellerud’s predecessor, losing all three of its group stage games, including a 7-1 thumping by Norway.
While there were some standout players, with the likes of Charmaine Hooper, Silvana Burtini, Andrea Neil and Amy Walsh, Pellerud knew changes were needed. He held some informal intrasquad matches across the country to evaluate players.
At the first game in Vancouver, his eyes were drawn to a young player on the right flank. She was a standout in every aspect of her game – her touches on the ball, her timing, her decision making.
“She will save my career,” he thought.
He asked a few in attendance what her name was.
Christine Sinclair, they said.
Before she became the top goal scorer in the history of international soccer, Sinclair was a 16-year-old from Burnaby, B.C., just trying to make an impact with the national team.
As her legendary international career is set to draw to a close with her final match in Vancouver on Dec. 5., those who have played a part in the journey were asked to look back on how it all began 23 years ago.
Christine Sinclair Even Pellerud
After her display at the showcase game, Sinclair was invited to train with the Canadian national team. Pellerud held a camp in Vancouver in Feb. 2000 before selecting a team to bring to the Algarve Cup, an eight-team invitational tournament. Sinclair was the youngest of 18 players brought to Portugal.
“She was just brilliant,” Pellerud told TSN. “Everything was natural for her. She just read the game perfect and had all the timing you need from a player who scores goals or who serves others for goals. It's just an amazing talent you rarely see.”
Despite Sinclair’s young age, Pellerud saw the beginnings of what would make her a world-class talent.
“She always makes the players around her look better than they really are because she sets them up in the right way,” he said. “She always has the right pass…. She has this ability to turn when she wants, to play a support pass when she wants, or to play a through pass when she needs to. She has a whole package of timing.”
Amy Walsh was 22 and captain of the team at that time. While she remembers how quiet Sinclair was at that tournament, she quickly discovered she didn’t need to treat her with kid gloves.
“Even though I was young myself, I felt like I wanted to protect her. But she didn't need protecting, because even though she was shy, there was just a natural built-in confidence there,” Walsh told TSN. “And then that sly smile that was kind of a smirk, but not really – you knew she got everything. You knew she got every nuance.”
Walsh recalls one afternoon that the players had off, and she, Sinclair, and another teammate were on a bus for a sightseeing tour. This was the first time Walsh had a chance to have a conversation with Sinclair.
Walsh and the other teammate on the bus were trying to come up with a nickname for the young forward. They focused on Sinclair’s piercing blue eyes, while also trying to play up how powerful she was on the pitch.
One idea came up: Hydro.
“Sinc didn't say much, but she said enough in the expression on her face to know that that nickname couldn't stick,” Walsh laughed.
Andrea Neil was one of the veterans of the team, having played for Canada since 1991. She had seen Sinclair a few years before, when she got the chance to work with her as a coach at Total Soccer Systems Academy in Richmond, B.C.
“I knew that she had something special. It's not just my knowing. Everybody could see it, that she had a way of understanding and playing the game that exceeded her age,” Neil told TSN.
When Sinclair became her teammate in 2000, Neil not only was reminded of her on-field talent, but also saw first-hand how her character shone.
“I think when you look at different environments that young players are in, it's not necessarily about age, but whether or not they're well fitted to the environment. And Christine stepped in and was well fitted,” Neil said. “In fact, you could see the leader by example in just how she carried herself as a player.”
Christine Sinclair Canada
Sinclair earned her first cap for the national team on March 12, 2000, a 4-0 defeat to China in the team’s first game of the Algarve Cup. Two days later, she got the start again against Pellerud’s former team, Norway. Eight minutes into the match, she scored her first international goal.
“She was not out of place. She helped to lead the charge. You could see from the first tournament, right off the bat,” Neil said.
Sinclair would score two more goals in the fifth-place game against Denmark. Walsh, usually a defensive midfielder, recalls being more involved in the offence and linking up with Sinclair.
“It was just so easy to play with her and to find her on the field. …That's what struck me about her as a player – how striking she was, and how understated,” she said.
Walsh described Pellerud as being “over the moon” at having Sinclair at the tournament – a player who could drive Canada’s offence.
“This is the person to build a team around. She was 16. How often do you say that about a teenager?” Pellerud said. “She just had it. I didn't coach her much. I just let her play.”
That sentiment was echoed by Ian Bridge, who was an assistant on Pellerud’s staff and also head coach of Canada’s under-19/under-20 team from 2001 to 20008.
“I coached her with the youth team. But that's exaggerating because I really didn't,” Bridge told TSN. “I just said, ‘Christine, go do what you do.’ I'll go coach the players I need to coach. She was that wonderful player that you didn't have to coach.”
Bridge remembers one training session with the U19 team where they were practising set plays. He instructed Sinclair to bend the ball around the wall with her right foot. But Sinclair had another idea – she wanted to try it with her left foot.
“No, Sincy, you're right-footed,” Bridge responded.
But Sinclair insisted she give it a go with her left. On her first attempt, she bent it over the wall into the top corner.
“In terms of technical training, or in terms of what to do in certain tactical situations, there was very little you had to talk to her about,” he said.
Carmelina Moscato Christine Sinclair Canada
Carmelina Moscato would go on to be Sinclair’s teammate for over 10 years with Canada, but she first met her at a U19 camp just prior to the 2002 FIFA U-19 Women’s World Championship.
“We had heard about this person named Christine and she had been with the senior team. She hadn't been with us at all, in any preparations or any camps leading into U19s in Edmonton,” Moscato told TSN.
“I remember her coming into practice, and she was electric. We were all at a pretty good level for a youth team. But she was lights out, a different gear. She was finishing everything she touched. Her movements were different than everyone else. I mean, she's been an anomaly for a long time.”
The 2002 U19 Women’s World Championship was the first FIFA-sanctioned youth tournament for women. Canada was the host nation, playing all of its games at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton. The team, coached by Bridge, would finish second at the tournament, losing to the U.S. in extra time of the final. That game at Commonwealth Stadium drew over 47,000 fans.
“For me, that was a turning point in our history in the women's game. We were on the cover of every news story,” Erin McLeod, the starting goalkeeper for that U19 team, told TSN. “We were wee babies. We didn't really know what we were doing. But we had Christine Sinclair on our team.”
At that point in her career, the largest home crowd Sinclair had played in front of for the national team was approximately 9,000. But if she felt any added pressure, she never showed it.
“She never wavered in terms of her kind of steadiness, her finishing, her tactical knowledge, things she had to do on the field,” Bridge said. “I don't know how nervous she was. I certainly remember my nerves on some of those games were way up there. But the mark of a great player is to be able to handle all that stuff, and she certainly did.”
In an event that featured future international stars like Brazil’s Marta, German Anja Mittag, and American Heather O’Reilly, Sinclair earned the Golden Ball as the tournament’s best player, and also finished as the top scorer with 11 goals in six games, including a five-goal performance in the quarter-final against England.
“It was just almost [like] she was a one-person demolition crew on that day,” Bridge said. “She scored almost every chance she got.”
This tournament also marked the first time that Sinclair wore the captain’s armband for her country, a role she would take on with the senior team for more than 15 years.
“She had the captain's respect from all the players,” Bridge said. “When you have a player that that can pretty much do anything on the field that is needed to be done, that's the mark of a captain.”
A year later, Sinclair made her World Cup debut in 2003. Canada was hurting going into the tournament, with injuries to key players like Walsh and several defenders. Canada played a simple game under Pellerud, which focused more on physicality than tactics.
“We were athletes first, and then maybe a little bit square peg, round holes, in terms of making us footballers,” Walsh said. “We were going to outwork teams and then look to see if we could break and find Sinclair in behind, or anybody else playing upfront.”
The system worked, at least at the 2003 World Cup. Canada surprised many by finishing fourth, still the team’s best-ever finish at a World Cup. In the quarter-finals, the Canadians upset China, who had finished second at the 1999 World Cup.
Sinclair, 20 at the time, tied for the team lead with three goals, including Canada’s lone tally in a 3-1 loss to the U.S. in the third-place game. She was part of a group of players on the roster all under the age of 22 who would soon become mainstays on the national team, such as Moscato, McLeod, Diana Matheson, Rhian Wilkinson, and 16-year-old Kara Lang.
“Christine led this younger group that came into that program, and there was a blend of stronger, veteran personalities with this new group that had performed so well at the Under-19 World Championship the year before,” Neil said.
“For Christine to get so many big tournaments – the under-19 tournament, to do so well in our home – I think was so important for her growth. And then to follow up the next year with the 2003 World Cup, and to have so many different pivotal opportunities to grow and try, and in her case, score goals, or miss, to learn how to score more goals was such an important thing.”
By the end of 2003, Sinclair had 43 goals in 57 appearances for Canada. But despite her rising star, she remained true to her humble and hard-working roots.
“You didn’t have to treat her differently. And I've played with people with an incredible amount of talent over the course of my career where ego was a problem,” Walsh said. “You didn't have to worry about her putting in the work. That was always going to be there. And then this incredible amount skill and talent was going to be allowed to shine on top of that.”
For new players joining the fold, like Wilkinson (who would be Sinclair’s teammate for 14 years), it didn’t take long to learn the true nature of the star striker.
“I thought maybe she was a bit standoffish, but you learn quickly, she's just quiet,” Wilkinson said. “How she is on the field and how she drifts – that's how she is in life. Her heart rate probably never changes.”
Wilkinson, who played as a forward at the time, once asked Sinclair how she was able to score as often as she did. Sinclair responded simply: “I just put it where the goalkeeper isn’t.”
“I remember that distinct memory of going through this roller coaster of emotions. Like, I didn't need a jerk answer,” Wilkinson laughed. “I thought she was trying to be funny, and then I realized that's literally what she does. And everyone else is so stressed or tense or trying to find that little inch and she just knows it. ‘I put it where the goalkeeper isn’t.’”
Christine Sinclair Erin McLeod Kadeisha Buchanan Canada
For the first decade or so of Sinclair’s international career, Canada was a team still searching for consistency on the international stage. The fourth-place finish at the 2003 World Cup was a blip on the radar. The Canadians didn’t crack the top 10 in FIFA’s rankings until 2007. They didn’t qualify for the Olympics until 2008.
“People don't realize that. We were barely winning, and she's still putting together performances,” Melissa Tancredi, who joined the national team in 2004, told TSN. “I know everyone talks about London [Olympics] as that being her breakout, but she was already a stud before that.”
As Sinclair’s profile grew, so did the target on her back, but much to the continued amazement of her teammates, her scoring pace never slowed.
“She still continued to deliver in those big moments, getting us the goals that we needed when she was oftentimes double teamed, when the other team was already keying on her, and she was still able to find that half turn, to find that curling shot, to just find that half step on the backline,” Walsh said.
“The fact that that pressure existed, and she was still able to come out on top is incredible to me, now thinking about it. I don't think that she saw it that way. I don't think she could have.”
When Sinclair took over as Canada’s captain in 2006, her work ethic became the guiding light for the team.
“She is not this loud and robust leader. She leads by example,” Sophie Schmidt, who joined the national team in 2005, told TSN. “Her work rate is second to none. As a teammate, you're always like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I need to do better. Look what Sincy’s doing. She’s our captain. That's the standard.’”
Sinclair captained the team for the first time at a World Cup in 2007, where the Canadians narrowly missed advancing to the knockout round after a 2-2 draw against Australia in the final group-stage match.
Sinclair led the team once again with three goals, but that’s not the memory that stands out for Pellerud.
“Although she scores all the time, it doesn't seem to be that important to her. She is as happy to set up other players,” he said. “She has never been selfish and never appears to be selfish… And that is an amazing thing, because most goal scorers are very selfish, and they are supposed to be, in many ways.”
Pellerud left the team after the 2008 Olympics. As the team changed tactics under a new head coach, Sinclair evolved her game to match.
“We played a brand of soccer [under Pellerud] that, at the time, was exactly what got us results, which was quite direct and very physical… and she was incredible at that,” Wilkinson said.
“And then we had a new coach, and it was all about technical and tactical and these little movements. And she was the best at that. And then we had a new coach who was about leadership and culture. And she was the best… As the team got better and more sophisticated, she was able to continue to lead.”
It was Sinclair’s leadership and dedication that paved the way for the national team’s emergence, starting with a bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics.
“Sincy is constantly driving to be better. For her, the No. 1 has always been driving the team,” McLeod said. “We've risen as a team, I think, trying to catch up to her.”
Now at the end of career, Sinclair has added many more accomplishments to her resume, including an Olympic gold medal. But her journey from 16-year-old phenom to 40-year-old icon is indelible.
“What makes Christine's rise a lot to talk about it is that it's not an easy thing to be a women's athlete in the current landscape,” Neil said. “But what she's been able to carry on her shoulders has been truly remarkable.
“She does represent qualities like humility, perseverance and determination. She's really embodied all of those throughout her career.”