MONTPELLIER, France — Goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc remembers her farewell lap at the 2015 World Cup, thanking the home fans as retirement beckoned after 17 years service and 110 caps.
Captain Christine Sinclair was next to her.
“She hugged me and she said to me ’You’ve made me a better woman,’” recalled LeBlanc, now head of CONCACAF women’s football. ”And I think for me that summed up Christine Sinclair. And I still get emotional talking about it.
“Because if Christine Sinclair can say that to me, then I just feel blessed because she is so much more than a soccer player, she’s an icon. She’s one of the biggest names in Canada and I hope she finally gets the recognition she deserves, to be one of the biggest names globally. Because she’s the humblest leader, yet one of the best leaders I’ve ever ever had the privilege of playing with.”
As fifth-ranked Canada prepares to open its 2019 World Cup campaign against No. 46 Cameroon on Monday, Sinclair is on the verge of soccer history. The veteran forward from Burnaby, B.C., who turns 36 on June 12, is just four goals from surpassing retired American Abby Wambach’s world record of 184 international goals.
Sinclair enters the tournament with 181 goals from 282 matches.
With four goals already in eight matches this year, odds are Sinclair will enter the record book at her fifth World Cup — tying LeBlanc’s Canadian participation record.
In typical Sinclair fashion, she chooses to ignore the record chase unless pressed on the issue.
“If I score, I score. If I don’t, it means someone else is, which makes me happy too,” Sinclair, who has 56 career assists, said prior to the tournament.
When she does talk about the record, she prefers to take a wider perspective, citing the progress of the Canadian team and Canadian soccer.
But she is human.
“It would be pretty cool to see a Canadian on the top of that (list). For me personally, (I’m) just trying to like enjoy this ride … I’m proud to be in this position,” she said in a rare personal reflection. ”I’m proud of the body of work I’ve had in terms of a career, it’s pretty special.”
While the captain downplays talk of making history, those around her are only too happy to.
“It’ll be a fantastic moment, a historic event … It’s a major thing for Christine, for this team and for Canada,” said Canada coach Kenneth Heiner-Moller. “It’s a record that’ll never be broken, I’m pretty sure of it. And it will be a Canadian who keeps it.
“Who would be better to have that record than Christine because she is so humble and hard-working?”
Sinclair’s teammates, past and present, marvel at her composure and deep toolbox in front of goal.
LeBlanc remembers her first impression of a teenage Sinclair.
“She had first come into camp and we were doing a scrimmage and she took a touch — the ball was on the side of the six(-yard-box) — she took a touch and placed it,” she recalled. “And I was like ‘Who is this kid?’ Because as a goalkeeper, usually people try to just hit it as hard as they can because they’re so close and she placed the ball where I was not.
“And it sounds so small and simple but that’s why she became and arguably will be the best goal-scorer in football. Because her poise in front of the net and her ability to put the ball where the goalkeeper is not, is why she is who she is. Because she’s at home in front.”
Others echo LeBlanc.
“Her composure in front of the net is just epic. Her technique as well,” said veteran midfielder Diana Matheson. “She puts the ball exactly where she wants the ball to go, where the ‘keeper isn’t … It’s way way way easier to say than to do on the biggest stage and she’s done it for decades. It’s fun to watch.”
“It’s just her calm under pressure in situations and how she’s able to kind of slow things down and relax and finish,” added fellow midfielder Jessie Fleming.
The phrase “heart and soul” is overused these days but it sums up Sinclair’s place in Canadian soccer.
After a memorable three-goal performance in a crushing 4-3 extra-time loss to the United States in the semifinals at the 2012 Olympics, it was Sinclair who rallied the troops in the dressing room after.
Then coach John Herdman was headed to the locker room at the time. He normally doesn’t speak to his players after games, preferring to talk later when heads are cooler.
But in the wake of the painful defeat, Herdman knew he had to say something sooner than later. As he walked though the tunnels towards the dressing room at Manchester United’s historic Old Trafford, Herdman talked it over with team psychiatrist Ceri Evans.
As they approached the dressing room, veteran equipment manager/administrator Maeve Glass came out. She was crying.
“She said ‘Look, you don’t need to go in there, it’s done … Christine just spoke to the team in a way she’s never spoke to them before.’ And there wasn’t a dry eye in the room,” Herdman recalled.
Said goalie Erin McLeod: “I get emotional every time I think about the speech.”
The team huddled up. “You could hear a pin drop,” said McLeod.
“I just remember sitting in the locker-room at Old Trafford,” Sinclair recalled later. “Just everyone was heartbroken, rightfully so. Myself included. After a couple of minutes, it sort of hit me that three days from now we’re playing for a bronze medal. Just this feeling came over me that I had to say something to this team.
“And I told them I had never been more proud to be their teammate. That the end result didn’t happen against the Americans but I’ve never been more proud to wear that shirt. And that if heading into London, somebody would have said ‘You’re going to be playing for a bronze medal,’ we would have taken it in a heartbeat. And I’m not leaving London without one.
“I don’t know. It just had to be said. Cool if it had an impact on people.”
The Canadian women picked themselves off the floor and went on to defeat France 1-0 for the bronze medal thanks to a Matheson goal in stoppage time.
The medal came 13 months after Canada finished dead last at the 2011 World Cup.
Seven years after London, Sinclair has high hopes for this World Cup.
“I’ve been waiting my entire career in a way for this pressure and this expectation,” she said. “To be a top-five team in the world is a remarkable achievement for Canada and this group of players. We’re right there. You see our results this year. Even the past two years …. we’re right there.
“Beating England in England earlier this year really gave us some confidence that we can literally beat anyone. Now it’s just a matter of doing it in a big tournament, where OK you beat Germany, then next game you have to beat France and the game after that you have to beat the U.S. It’s a matter of us putting it together when it matters most.”