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Canada captain Christine Sinclair: As special off the field as she is on it

Canada's Christine Sinclair in action during the Women's World Cup Group B soccer match between Nigeria and Canada in Melbourne, Australia, Friday, July 21, 2023. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Hamish Blair) Canada's Christine Sinclair in action during the Women's World Cup Group B soccer match between Nigeria and Canada in Melbourne, Australia, Friday, July 21, 2023. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Hamish Blair)
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Appointed head coach of the Canadian women's soccer team in October 1999, Even Pellerud recalls essentially being handed a blank piece of paper.

“It was a baby program. It was really nothing to inherit,” he said.

So after arriving in Canada from his native Norway in early 2000, he left his family in Toronto to scout talent. With help from local coaches, he had three practice games set up in three cities.

One player immediately caught his eye at the game in Vancouver.

“On the right side of the white team there was a player that really stood out with her smartness and speed and skills,” he said. “And of course, it didn't take a long time before I asked the people 'Who is this?' And then they said 'This is just a young player.' And I said 'Well, give me the name. I want her.”'

It was Christine Sinclair.

“So that was the first thing I did in Canada,” said Pellerud.

He gave a 16-year-old Sinclair her senior debut that March, making her Canada's youngest-ever player at the time, at the 2000 Algarve Cup. She opened her account two days later in a 2-1 win over Norway, becoming Canada's youngest-ever scorer (Kara Lang subsequently broke both records).

“Even though she was immature and young and shy, I think I immediately knew this is the player to build the team around,” said Pellerud. “Because it was her and then you had some of the veterans like Andrea Neil and Silvana Burtini around her to build leadership. That was what I built on. Those veteran players with smartness and leadership and then Sinclair. And then you kind of filled out the team around that.”

Sinclair went on to score 15 goals in 2002 and 98 in all during Pellerud's nine years at the Canadian helm.

“I don't think I really remember coaching her a lot,” said Pellerud. “I just gave her a position where she could expose her skills. Without over-coaching or over-directing her moves or her decision-making, I think I just gave her a space to be close to the net. Because she was already then a good goal-scorer.”

Sinclair's world-record total now stands at 190 goals after 23 years on the Canadian team.

The 40-year-old from Burnaby, B.C., calls time on her international career Tuesday in her backyard, against Australia at B.C. Place Stadium, in what will be her 331st appearance for Canada

While intensely private, Sinclair has helped foster a welcoming and open atmosphere with the women's team.

Former Canada coach Kenneth Heiner-Moller, who took over the team in early 2018 when John Herdman switched to the Canadian men, says Sinclair has the biggest influence and impact when “the cameras are shut off and the doors are closed and she can be just herself.”

“She is one of these persons that's just a connector,” he added. “She doesn't speak a lot but when she speaks, people listen. But the way she just embraces everyone and takes good care of them, I think she's got a very high social knowledge and interest in people. So she can feel or see when people or teammates or staff are not comfortable.”

Former teammate Rhian Wilkinson, a Canada Soccer Hall of Famer who won 181 caps in an international career that stretched from 2003 to 2017, says Sinclair is special off the field as well as on it.

“It's the gift of some people that they don't belong to any one group. They belong to all groups because, I think, straight from Day 1 of meeting her, she was easy to be around and talk to,” said Wilkinson, who later coached Sinclair at the NWSL's Portland Thorns. “And then you'd watch her on the field and she's one of the cool kids through ability. She automatically could do whatever she wants.”

“So whether you're at your first camp or whether you're a friend of hers that's been around for 20 odd years, she'll sit with you and have a conversation and it's not a big deal,” Wilkinson added. “I don't think it's ever occurred to her to limit the ability to talk to everyone. It's a pretty special thing when your best player acts like that because it sets the standard for the whole team around them.”

But that took time.

Wilkinson recalled the ill-fated 2011 World Cup in Germany where the Canadian women, under Italian coach Carolina Morace, finished last.

“It was almost a bit cliquey those years,” Wilkinson recalled. “And we fell into that trap of there's the new people and then there's the older group. And I think we just started to taste a little bit of some notoriety and it really backfired on us.”

With Herdman as coach, the team began to understand everyone had to pull in the same direction.

“People talk about how close Canada is as a team,” Wilkinson said. “I think that stems from this understanding that every single player, no matter how long they've been on the team, has got to feel like they're valued and that they're important. And when your leader is setting that standard because she's learned those lessons, no one has an excuse for acting differently. Sincy's done that.

“And you see it now. Jessie Fleming is the veteran at 25 with God knows how many caps (122). And she's learned watching Sincy. And Kadeisha Buchanan and Ashley Lawrence and Kailen Sheridan, how can they possibly have an overblown ego when they share a field with Christine Sinclair and she doesn't. It's pretty cool to have around.”

Sinclair says simply that scoring goals “has always come naturally.”

“I honestly have no idea why,” she wrote in her autobiography “Playing the Long Game: A Memoir.”

But there is no secret to Sinclair's success in front of goal. Hard work, a unique football brain and a competitive streak that runs a mile wide will go a long way.

“I've heard her say before, when people ask her 'Oh how do you score so many goals?' and she explains that she's always had this really calm presence in front of goal and she doesn't really know where it came from,” said fellow forward Janine Beckie. “But when most people panic in the six (-yard box) and there's total chaos, she says she feels like that's her most calm moment on the field.

“And as a forward I can definitely say that that's not true for the majority of players. It's usually the most chaotic moment right in front of goal. But she feels her most comfortable there and she will literally explain that she just puts it where the goalkeeper isn't.”

Heiner-Moller notes the speed of Sinclair's finishing touch, which unbalances defenders and goalkeepers.

“Being smart, able to read the game but also having this great finishing touch, which she was rehearsing over and over - this is the hard work - then you've got a lethal package,” he said.

Bev Priestman, Canada's current coach, said she learned early on that coaching Sinclair is “a balance of trying to challenge someone but also not overcomplicating the game.”

“I learned very quickly that she just has an unbelievable football brain, that you can keep it simple,” she added. “And in many ways that is what the team feels, it's that simplicity and just the football nous that she has.”

Added fullback/midfielder Ashley Lawrence: “Her vision is impeccable. I think that's something we don't talk about enough.”

Goalkeeper Erin McLeod, who retired from international football in January and is also being honoured Tuesday, relished the challenge of facing Sinclair in practice or at club level.

“I loved going against Sincy because she could sense when the 'keepers are unbalanced, so you had to really stay true to your positioning and you couldn't really guess because you'd get caught,” said McLeod. “But then you'd kind of have to guess because her finishing was so good.”

There were some painful lessons along the way.

McLeod, then with the under-19 team, remembers playing against Sinclair and the full international squad in a scrimmage in advance of the 2002 FIFA U19 Women's World Championship on home soil - a tournament that saw both players excel for Canada.

“Sincy chipped me from like halfway. and I'll never forget it. Even though I hadn't met her, you had already heard about her … I think everyone knew she was already special. But that was a humbling introduction, I would say, to Sinclair.”

While Sinclair is stepping away from the international game, her goal-scoring record remains.

And while records are made to be broken, many think it will take a while to surpass - if ever.

“Honesty it's going to be very hard to beat,” said 28-year-old forward Nichelle Prince, whose two goals in Friday's 5-0 win over Australia in Langford, B.C., raised her total for Canada to 16 in 95 games. “I'm hoping there is a young girl out there right now that is trying to beat it, but that's a very difficult thing to accomplish. And so it just shows how amazing Sinc is.”

Added Beckie: “It's going to be a very long time. I'm sure it won't happen for a very long time.”

Said Heiner-Moller: “I can't see too many players being a part of the game for so many years that Sinc has, I can't see the record being broke, perhaps forever.”

While Sinclair has earned countless awards, from being named Canada's Player of the Year 14 times to the Order of Canada, she has never won FIFA's World Player of the Year award.

Pellerud still can't believe it.

“In my opinion she should have had the award somewhere between five and 10 years,” he said.

“She was nominated a couple of times but never got it,” he added. “And every time I'm angry … It drove me crazy to see she didn't win. But she has a lot of other official awards and she deserves them all.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 4, 2023.

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