Not many had predicted that Canada would win gold at the Tokyo Olympics in women’s soccer. Clearly, the favorites to win the title were the evergreen United States women's national team (USWNT) or Sweden.
The Canadian team thrived on tenacity and team spirit to win gold at the Tokyo Olympics.
Statistically, they were outclassed in most of their matches. But the tactical savvy of coach Bev Priestman saw the team advance through to the all-important gold medal match.
Canada adopted a conservative playing style throughout the tournament. As a result, they utilized all their chances up front with players like Christine Sinclair and Jessie Fleming forging a ferocious attacking partnership.
The defensive line was also solid and conceded just three goals in the tournament. Progressing through the group stages and quarter-finals was no easy task for the Canadian team.
The highlight of their campaign was beating the USWNT in the penultimate stage of the competition. The match was arguably worthy of a final as it pitted two great rivals of women’s soccer against each other.
Following glory in the final against the mighty Swedes, players like Stephanie Labbe, Jessie Fleming, Ashley Lawrence, Christine Sinclair, and 20-year-old Julia Grosso became national heroes.
Without further ado, let's look at how the Canadian women achieved this historic feat.
#5 - Canada’s qualification to the Tokyo Olympics
Canada qualified for the Tokyo Olympics after placing second in the 2020 CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifying Tournament. It was held in Texas and California with the USWNT crowned champions for the fifth time.
Coach Beverly Priestman named a squad of 18 players ahead of the Olympics for the Canadian women’s soccer team. Like many of their fellow contestants, they were uncertain of their fate in the women’s football tournament.
With soccer powerhouses like the Netherlands, the Swedes and the enigmatic USWNT in the mix, it was a long shot for Canada.
However, the presence of Christine Sinclair in the squad provided the needed motivation for the Canadians. 12 of the Canadian players were part of the 2012 bronze-winning team at the London Olympics.
Evidently, the Canadians did have the experience but what road map did they draw this time to win another medal at Tokyo?
#4 - Group stages
The Canadians were drawn in Group E together with world-class teams like Great Britain, Chile and the hosts, Japan.
The match against Japan was slated for July 21 at Yokohama Stadium and ended in a 1-1 draw.
Their second game was a thrilling battle with Chile where they emerged triumphant after Janine Beckie’s brace. Canada had amassed four points and were going to encounter Great Britain in their final game.
Team GB were unbeaten in their last two games and beating the Canadians was a moment they yearned for. Canada looked like they had victory within their grasp until Caroline Weir scored a late goal in the dying minutes of the game.
Canada finished the group stages with five points and that was enough to launch them into the knockout phase of the competition.
#3 -The quarter-finals
The quarter-finals saw them drawn against the Brazilians who had had a stellar campaign until then.
Brazil advanced from Group F after beating Zambia and China, and drawing against the Netherlands. Canada had a huge task at hand against an established Brazilian side.
It was a classic game of tactical mindsets that saw the game bleed into extra time. After 120 minutes of goalless action between the two teams, penalties were the only lifeline left in the game.
Canada won on penalties in dramatic fashion. Christine Sinclair opened the shootout with an uncharacteristic plot twist as she missed her kick. One might have expected the Canadian team to be down-spirited, but this was not to be.
The Brazilians had the edge during the penalty shootouts after Martha, Dabinha and Erika all scored their kicks perfectly. However, Canada kept pace with them as the likes of Jessie Fleming, Ashley Lawrence and Adriana Leon all scored from the spot.
The heroine of this intense penalty shoot-out was the Canadian goalkeeper, Stephanie Labbe. She made two crucial saves to secure Canada’s ticket to the penultimate stage of the competition.
The hurdles the Canadian team had to surmount got tougher with each stage they advanced to.
#2 - Semi-finals vs USWNT
The hurdle this time was a tough one. One that would test their prowess in football in all aspects of the pitch.
The USWNT and the Canadians have a rich historic footprint in women’s soccer, and it mostly ends with smiles for the USWNT.
The last time the two rivals met was in the semi-finals of the 2012 London Olympics. The USWNT had stung the Canadians to advance into the finals then.
Fast forward to 2021, and they encountered each other again.
The game was initially a cagey affair. However, both teams were presented with a flurry of chances as the match progressed, which they failed to capitalize on.
With 15 minutes left in the game, the USWNT conceded a penalty as Tierna Davidson fouled Deanne Rose. Jessie Fleming’s clutch spot kick was enough to send Canada into the finals.
It was the first time in 20 years that the Canadians had beaten the USWNT. Vanquishing the prolific USWNT was a moment the Canadians relished to the fullest.
#1 - The final (Gold medal match)
After two weeks of exciting women’s football, the final battle line was drawn. It was the Canadians against the great Swedes, who were having an amazing tournament.
These two teams were the only ones who had managed to beat the USWNT in the competition.
This was Canada’s first gold medal match. For Sweden, this was their second time in an Olympic gold medal match after the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Stina Blackstenius opened the scoring in the final to give Sweden the lead. The second half was keenly contested, and the Swedes outclassed the Canadians statistically.
They enjoyed more possession and tested Canada's defense with several chances. But Canada's defensive quartet put on a clinic against the Swede machine.
Vanessa Gilles, Kadeisha Buchanan, Desiree Scott and Ashley Lawrence all came in with key defensive interventions to keep the Swedes at bay.
Veteran Canadian striker Christine Press eventually won a penalty for the Canadians. Once again, Jessie Fleming stepped up and neatly converted the spot kick to put the Canadians level.
The game went into extra time with Stephanie Labbe making instrumental saves to keep the Swedes from scoring. It then proceeded to penalties.
Labbe made two crucial saves and handed the onus to 20-year-old Julia Grosso to score the gold-medal-winning penalty kick for the Canadians, which she duly delivered.
Once again, another incredible surprise had taken place at the Tokyo Olympics. The Canadians had managed to win gold at the expense of the world-class Swedes.
Sweden were favorites to win the final but had to settle for silver again. Scenes from Rio 2016 played out again in Tokyo as the Swedes had lost to Germany in the summit clash then.
This time, it was a nail-biting penalty shootout loss to Canada. It was the first of its kind in a gold medal match at the Olympic women’s soccer tournament.
Christine Sinclair had finally won her country’s first Olympic gold medal in women’s soccer. This was also Canada’s first-ever championship in a major international tournament.
Rumors are making the rounds that she might retire after the Olympics since she’s 38 years old. Whatever her decision may be, she will retire as a legend.
Coach Beverley’s tactical prowess and personnel changes were also imperative in Canada winning the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics.
All in all, it was a historic occasion, and one that Canadians are sure to savor for the next three years at least.