The Current

Canada's gold medal in women's soccer is a chance to grow the sport at home, says Andrea Neil

Former national soccer team member Andrea Neil says that Friday's Olympic gold for Canada's women's soccer team represents a chance to strengthen the sport back in Canada.

Time is right for a dedicated domestic league, says former national player

Canadian players celebrate after clinching the gold medal in Tokyo Friday. (Lisi Niesner/Reuters)

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The Canadian women's soccer team's Olympic gold could be a chance to better promote the game at home, says former national team player Andrea Neil.

"Where I would love Canada to go, is a league in Canada to now fill in a gap to bring up more soccer players at a higher level, more coaches, more administrators, more political people on the women's side within our country," she said.

Neil was a member of the Canadian Women's National Team from 1991 to 2007, and became the first woman to be inducted into Canada's Sport Hall of Fame for soccer in 2011.

Canada defeated Sweden 3-2 on penalties to win the gold medal Friday at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, with Julia Grosso scoring the decisive shot. Canada won bronze at the 2012 London Games and finished third again at the 2016 Olympics in Rio.

Neil said she's watched the team's momentum build through the Games, and today saw "something in their body language that had changed — and a sense of belief."

She spoke with The Current's guest host Rosemary Barton about the game, and what a win might mean for Canadian soccer. Here is part of their conversation.

Can you walk me through a little bit what would have been going through their minds, getting ready for those penalty kicks? I would imagine that is not how any soccer player really wants the game to end, right? But you're in that position, and how do you sort of cope with that moment if you're one of the people taking the kick?

It's interesting. This is where you would think youth could go against you, like as far as that experience or lack of experience in games like this, because you cannot simulate something like this. But in this case ... you take the foot off the pedal and you just go for it without hesitation. And in many cases today you saw that. And it wasn't just today, but Jessie Fleming showing up three times in a row was unbelievable.

She was rock solid and showed such the way to walk up and take them. So you saw within a young Canadian … just a quiet confidence to go for it.

Let's talk about Christine Sinclair, of course, the captain, the woman who has had a phenomenal career as a soccer player, women or men's. What does this mean for her career? Would this be a good way to end the career? Could you see that this might be the pinnacle, the piece that she had been waiting for? And what would it mean for her, do you think? 

Many athletes will come to a point where they don't know when to hang it up. And whether or not she's been thinking about this — I'm sure all of the thoughts have been going into this game and she's not thinking about it.

You almost look at the next four years. Can I make it to the next World Cup, so three years? Can I make it to the next Olympics? So you're not just talking year to year, or six-month segments of time. You have to think, "OK, can I make it to the next one?"

For Christine to walk away now would be the pinnacle, and everything that she's worked for. She may decide that she's just too tired to continue performing at this level and decide, you know, I want to play a different role, I need to relax for a while.

Everything up to this point ... how she's done it has been the incredible thing for me, personally.

Without making this about girls and women, because I think we're at a point now where this is just about a phenomenal soccer team that may inspire others, what would be your hope for what would happen in this country with that? 

Andrea Neil takes control of the ball in Burnaby, B.C. in Sept., 2005. She played for Canada's national team from 1991 to 2007. (Chuck Stoody/Canadian Press)

I just love keeping the dialogue going that this is about football, and Canadian football is huge. Not about gender, that's old conversations now. I think it's extremely valuable for the kids growing up, not just young girls, but young males. [For] girls, [it's] important to have a tangible example. 

I think that this is a tremendous time. Where I would love Canada to go, is a league in Canada to now fill in a gap to bring up more soccer players at a higher level, more coaches, more administrators, more political people on the women's side within our country, and to develop within the infrastructure from that standpoint.

I would imagine that the women you coach at the university level would look at this today and just feel sort of limitless in terms of career possibilities. 

Absolutely, and I think the time is now. 

Club soccer has been there in the past, a long time ago for women's national team players in Canada, but not a dedicated domestic league. That that allows this to continue — people to continue watching, but in a very tangible way in our own backyard — would be absolutely huge.

And the continuity of players playing for longer, the game — Christine, 38 years old, still playing. This is a life game.

My former teammates, their moms are still playing in their 60s and 70s. Now, that's not me, but that's great for another generation of people playing the game well into their lives. 

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Lindsay Rempel. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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