If you were going to predict who'd score the winning goal in Thursday's bronze-medal match against France, chances are good you'd go with tournament goal-scoring leader and Canadian hero Christine Sinclair, or perhaps Melissa Tancredi, who was third in goals with four heading into Thursday's match. It was five-foot midfielder Diana Matheson who notched the crucial last-second goal that gave Canada Olympic bronze and remarkable redemption, though, and that's perfectly apropos. In many ways, the story of Matheson's the story of this Canadian team; a long-time presence on the international stage, but often doubted, battling through 2011 tragedy to 2012 triumph with plenty of bumps along the way.
It's been a rocky road for both Canada and Matheson recently, with the Canadians crashing out of the 2011 World Cup without a point and Matheson suffering a brutal knee injury, but they've bounced back in style. As Matheson told CTV after Thursday's match, earning an Olympic medal was an incredible moment considering what she and the rest of the team had gone through.
"It feels unreal," she said. "It feels like a dream. I'm on the edge of tears. I'm just so happy with this group."
Matheson said the winning goal, which came when she collected a deflected Sophie Schmidt shot and carefully fired it home (smartly avoiding offside teammate Kaylyn Kyle in the process to keep the goal legal) was all about instinct.
"I have no idea what happened," she said. "I was just in the right spot."
What's perhaps most remarkable about Matheson scoring the winner is how she played a critical role in the controversial chain of events that led Canada here. The Canadian team was up 3-2 on the U.S. towards the end of Monday's semifinal, but an unusual delay-of-game call from referee Christina Pedersen on Canadian keeper Erin McLeod led to an indirect free kick for the Americans; that kick went off Matheson's arm, leading to Abby Wambach's score-equalizing penalty and setting the stage for Alex Morgan's extra-time winner. The loss to the U.S. was anything but Matheson's fault, as Pedersen's decision against McLeod was the real pivotal moment, but it's still incredible that the woman who eventually conceded the critical penalty against the U.S. wound up scoring the winner against France. It's hard to think of a more redemptive moment than that.
It wasn't easy for this team to bounce back from Monday's crushing defeat, especially considering all the controversies and investigations that followed. Matheson told CTV after Thurday's match that the tidal wave of support from Canadians following the U.S. loss helped the team renew their focus and earn bronze, though.
"The outpouring of support after the U.S. game was unbelievable, from Stephen Harper to little girls playing soccer all across Canada."
Matheson's only 28, so she's hardly at the end of her career, but she's been representing Canada at the senior level since 2003 and is the second-most capped Canadian ever (behind only Sinclair). She also holds the record for consecutive senior international appearances by a Canadian woman with 45. It's remarkable that she's been able to stick in the squad so consistently, as there have constantly been questions about her size, but she's proven capable time and time again. She overcame massive obstacles to get here, too, including that 2011 knee injury that kept her out of the January Olympic qualifying tournament, but as she told CBC's Ben Rycroft before the Games, she was always sure she'd compete at the Olympics again following the 2008 extra-time loss to the Americans:
Matheson suffered a serious knee injury in late 2011, one that crossed her off the list for Olympic qualifying. She was forced to watch as Canada proceeded to march through the qualifying tournament in Vancouver and was left to wonder if she was going to recover in time for London.
"It was the longest I've been out since I've been on the national team. I've actually been really lucky with that. Other girls have been out longer," Matheson said. "And yes, there was a period when I questioned if it would heal up in time. But, if I'm being honest, I was always planning that I was going to be here, it was just a matter of how many drugs I was going to have to be on - anti-inflammatories I mean."
Matheson's journey largely reflects that taken by the Canadian women's team over the last decade. They've always been around as a competitive squad on the senior level, but have often been doubted, and that was particularly true in the wake of their atrocious 2011 Women's World Cup performance (which included a 4-0 drubbing from France). Yet, they never stopped believing, and new head coach John Herdman helped lift their focus to new heights, aiming for the podium long before London and then guaranteeing a win in the bronze-medal game. That belief wasn't just Herdman's, either, but was echoed by players like Matheson; as she told Eh Game before these Olympics, she and the other Canadian veterans were determined to come out with a better performance than the quarterfinal loss they recorded in 2008.
"Last time, there was a bit of a 'happy to be there' attitude," Matheson said. "This time around, we're going in to get a result."
They certainly did that Thursday, picking up the medal they'd hoped for, and they have unlikely hero Matheson to thank for that.