MONTREAL – I'm in a karaoke bar trying to make sense of it all. Canada has just booked its place in the knockout round of the Women's World Cup but there's something not quite right. As I nurse a beer, I look over my shoulder and watch the locals step up to the stage and have their moment in the spotlight.
“There were moments of gold and there were flashes of light...it's all coming back to me.”
It was Canada’s best performance of the tournament, certainly. The opening 15 minutes was one-way traffic as Canada dominated the Dutch. There was Sophie Schmidt's careful header that kissed the top of the crossbar. There was the early intensity, the wave after wave of attack, a different mindset. This was what we had waited for - the Canadians taking the game to the opposition, giving the crowd something to get behind. And then Ashley Lawrence swept home from close range and the Stade Olympique erupted.
It made sense. Canada had been good and they were rewarded for their bravery. In the opening two fixtures, everything was so dull and uninspiring. Now, they were free-flowing. Moments later, Lawrence almost had a second, her shot narrowly missing the bottom corner.
And then, something changed. Canada sat back, ceded control and the Netherlands began to exert substantial influence, allowed the opportunity to dictate things. Though the execution was a struggle at times, here was a team with a clear philosophy. Every move began from the back. There was a slow build-up, meticulous. There were short passes. The two centre-halves thought little of playing one-twos to each other. Canada backed off. There was little danger, they thought. But the Dutch built a foundation and began to dominate. They moved the ball into key midfield zones and out wide, Manon Melis and Lieke Martens were causing havoc. The Canadian fullbacks, Josee Belanger and Allysha Chapman, were left dazed by the pairs' speed, urgency and directness.
How had this happened?
There were the individual errors, too. Far too often, Canada squandered possession cheaply in key areas. Early in the opening period, the disappointing Kaylyn Kyle was brushed off the ball and lay on the turf, head in the ground, as the Netherlands broke quickly. The through ball was overhit, however, and Kyle and her side survived. It was yet another warning. On the ropes, Canada were looking at the clock. Bruised and battered, they longed for a break. Just a little respite.
“Your faith was strong but you needed proof.”
Coach John Herdman had made four changes to his team for the final game of the group round robin. He dropped Lauren Sesselmann, affording the veteran Carmelina Moscato a place in the heart of the defence. Elsewhere, he went for youth, as 17-year-old Jessie Fleming started in midfield while Adriana Leon provided support in attack. But, once again, the most important and influential player in Canadian colours was Kadeisha Buchanan, the 19-year-old centre back.
A physically imposing character, her reading of the game is outstanding and her ability to make a tackle at the most opportune moment has been a consistent pattern throughout this tournament. Shortly before the interval, Martens sped away down the left side, raced into the area and was just about to send in a cross when Buchanan dived in and swept the ball away with pinpoint accuracy. The crowd loved it. But it was damning just how little they had to cheer going forward.
There was the limited industry of Schmidt while Lawrence continued to hover dangerously but the elephant in the room was Christine Sinclair, so easily shackled by the Dutch defence. The focal point of the attack, she popped up with a Hitchcockian blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo before the break, pushing an overcooked pass into Schmidt's path. Outside of that, there was little return. At one stage in the first half, Sinclair looked spent after trying to run down a ball played into the right channel, having exerted so much energy over the course of a short sprint. For the entire game, she was largely anonymous and there was a clear contrast between the quick, enterprising Dutch front line and what Canada had to offer.
As both teams celebrated their own version of success at the full-time whistle, Sinclair trudged towards the tunnel, shoeless and with wrapping on both feet. A patched-up warrior who struggled to make much of an impact during battle.
“Every little thing that you do, baby, I'm amazed by you.”
In front of over 45,000 in Montreal, Canada did enough. They scored, they remained unbeaten and finished the group stage as winners. And for the majority, that's okay. But as much as the support remains loud and proud, there's a feeling of frustration amongst the players and management. At full-time, as the Canadian group draped their arms around each other and reflected on the game, the faces seemed far from happy. There was little celebration at qualifying for the round of 16. For long periods, the Netherlands had outplayed them. But for a late, great close-range save from Erin McLeod, the Europeans may have won. In the sobering moments after the whistle, there was plenty to stew over.
And even later, in an obscure bar, I watched a litany of Montrealers grab a microphone and perform run-of-the-mill karaoke songs. And something hit me. Sometimes, it doesn't matter what you sing or how you sing it. If you're off-key or you forget the words, there is always someone who cheers you on. And, for a while at least, maybe that's enough to keep you going.