Why hasn’t Christine Sinclair ever won FIFA Women’s Player of the Year?
She has more international goals than anyone in the history of soccer. She’s an Olympic gold medallist. She has won multiple club championships, including three in the National Women's Soccer League.
But Christine Sinclair has never won FIFA Player of the Year, or the Ballon d’Or. She has never even been one of the three finalists.
If you ask her why she and her teammates always seem to be overlooked for individual accolades, her answer is simple:
Sinclair and Canada are looking to change that as they prepare for the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. The Canadians kick off the tournament on July 21 (July 20 in Canada) against Nigeria.
This will be the sixth and perhaps final World Cup for the Canadian captain. She and Brazilian star Marta are the only women to score in five editions of the tournament, and she enters with 10 World Cup goals, tied for eighth-most all-time.
But Canada’s best finish at the World Cup came 20 years ago, when the team finished fourth in 2003. Bev Priestman, head coach for Canada, wonders if the country’s lack of World Cup success might play a factor when it comes to Sinclair and her teammates being overlooked for their performances.
“When you think about the global game, the Olympics is smaller, there's less teams, less coverage,” Priestman said. “I think we go and climb this mountain this summer and that might change.”
Amy Walsh, who earned more than 100 caps for Canada, also believes that the Olympics may not be as highly regarded as the World Cup when it comes to women’s soccer.
“If you look at Canada's success, the way that it's been primarily at the Olympics… and you compare it to the World Cup with the giants of the game, more European opponents, which Canada traditionally has difficulty with, I think that might be the answer,” said Walsh, who also features for TSN as a soccer analyst. “So, as a country, they may be disregarded, and then as a result, unfortunately, the individual players also get overlooked.”
A perceived lack of respect is nothing new for Canada’s top players. Kailen Sheridan was named the NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year in 2022 but didn’t make FIFA’s shortlist of six nominees for Best Goalkeeper.
Centre-back Kadeisha Buchanan won five Champions League titles with Lyon but was almost always overshadowed by French captain, Wendie Renard. Midfielder Jessie Fleming converted four penalties to help her country win an Olympic gold medal, but she finished ninth in voting for the 2021 Ballon d’Or.
Even Priestman, who had been on the job for less than a year when she led Canada to the top of the podium at the Tokyo Games, somehow wasn’t one of the three finalists for FIFA Coach of the Year, an award that often gives more weight to major tournament triumphs.
“It seems Bev Priestman was robbed here. What more does a national team coach have to do?” Sinclair tweeted after the three finalists for 2021 were announced.
But Sinclair’s constant exclusion from the yearly top honours remains the most notable slight and a source of consternation for her teammates and Canadian fans. Since FIFA started handing out its women’s player of the year award in 2001, Sinclair has never finished higher than fifth in voting.
In women’s Ballon d’Or voting, which was first awarded in 2018, Sinclair finished sixth in 2021 and 15th in 2018 (last among all the nominees).
In 2022, Sinclair did receive the FIFA Special The Best Award as recognition for her becoming the highest-scoring player in international soccer. But her teammates still feel that Sinclair has been overlooked for most of her career.
“Sinclair, how she has never won the Ballon d'Or or won FIFA women's player of the year? I'm still banging my head,” Canadian fullback Ashley Lawrence told TSN. “I know we all are because of what she's achieved and accomplished as a player.”
2012: Year of the Snub?
2012 remains the most notable year where Sinclair did not crack the three finalists for player of the year. She was one of 10 players named to a shortlist of nominees after scoring a national-record 23 goals in 22 matches, including six at the Olympics, a tournament record at the time.
“I think there's definitely years where this team and the country was very frustrated that Sincy wasn't nominated or did not receive that award,” Fleming told TSN. “I think back to 2012, and I have no idea how anyone could argue that anyone other than her deserve that award.”
Sinclair helped lead her team to a bronze medal at the London Games, and won several awards in Canada, including the Lou Marsh Trophy (now known as the Northern Star Award) as Canada’s best athlete and the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal.
She came in fifth for voting for FIFA player of the year.
“If you're going to reference a particular moment in time where there was a snub, it was then. That was completely off the mark with the people who are making those decisions,” Walsh said.
American Abby Wambach won the award that year, with her teammate, Alex Morgan, finishing third and Marta coming in second.
After WPS (Women’s Professional Soccer) officially ceased operations in 2012, many players were without a club or played in the semi-professional USL W-League, putting more of an emphasis on international stats. Sinclair’s 23 goals that year, along with six assists, made her directly involved in almost 66 per cent of Canada’s goals. Her most impressive and memorable performance came with her hat-trick against the U.S. at Old Trafford in the semi-finals of the London Olympics.
“That, to me, is Christine Sinclair personified. That semifinal game that we Canadian fans hate to talk about,” Walsh said with a laugh. “But if there was ever a time where you looked at her dominance, her influence on the game, her ability to pull her team on, and to just will the game in her favour, in Canada's favour – it was that. So, if that wasn't going to do it, I'm not sure what it was going to take.”
Wambach finished with 27 goals in 21 games for the U.S., including five at the Olympics. She converted a crucial (albeit controversial) penalty against Canada in the 80th minute of their Olympic semi-final match to tie the game and send it to extra time.
Morgan statistically had the best year, with 28 goals and 21 assists in 31 games. She had 14 goals in 15 matches heading into the London Games. At the Olympics, she scored the game-winner against Canada in the final moments of extra time. She finished with a tournament-best five assists and won U.S. Soccer Female Athlete of the Year.
Marta’s stats for Brazil outside of the Olympics are harder to verify. During the London Games, she had two goals in four matches before Brazil was eliminated by Japan in the quarter-finals. That season with Tyresö, a club in Sweden’s Damallsvenskan, she had a league-best 16 assists and finished tied for the team lead with 12 goals in 21 matches, helping Tyresö take home the league title.
After the three finalists were revealed, John Herdman, then-head coach for Canada, called Sinclair’s exclusion “a travesty.” There was speculation that Sinclair’s comments after Canada’s controversial loss to the U.S. at the Olympics may have played a factor. Immediately following the match, Sinclair was critical of referee Christina Pedersen, who had made several questionable calls, saying, in part, “We feel like we didn't lose, we feel like it was taken from us. It's a shame in a game like that that was so important, the ref decided the result before it started."
Sinclair was suspended for four games by FIFA and fined $3,500, but it wasn’t for her comments to the media. In her book, Playing the Long Game, Sinclair clarified that the suspension was a result of a run-in she had with Pedersen after the match, when she told her, “You were f---ing horrible.” (Pedersen filed a complaint to FIFA saying that Sinclair had called her a “f---ing whore”).
But a closer look at the votes indicates that it may have had more to do with worldwide name recognition than politics. Marta had won FIFA Player of the Year for five straight years from 2006 to 2010, and the Americans won Olympic gold that year. At the end of 2012, Wambach had 152 international goals, nine more than Sinclair, and was just six back from tying Mia Hamm’s record at the time.
“I think that the awards are being given to the players who are more well known, and it's less on the back of the performances that they've had over the season, versus maybe the amount of social media likes or followers that these players have,” Walsh said.
Sinclair’s style of play may also work against her when it comes to garnering attention. Despite her goal-scoring ability, Sinclair has an understated presence on and off the pitch, especially when compared to the flashiness of Marta or the vocalness of Wambach.
But for Walsh, Sinclair’s subtleness is what makes her brilliant.
“I think if you go back and you look at the quality of all of those goals, even if the flash is maybe minimal, anybody who understands the game recognizes the technical prowess that she possesses, her unique ability to find the back of the net, and to make the sometimes impossible-to-execute move or touch look just sort of pedestrian or simple,” she said. “That's the quality of Christine Sinclair right there.”
While Canadian soccer fans will forever be outraged on her behalf, Sinclair has always downplayed any of her personal accomplishments, including individual awards (or lack thereof). For her, the only accolade she’s missing is one that Canada has yet to achieve: a World Cup.
“The group that we have, we're capable of anything,” Sinclair said. “We have the squad that can get it done. For me, it's like the one piece of unfinished business.”