Canadian soccer superstar Christine Sinclair says she is watching the World Cup with mixed emotions

the sunday magazine12:30 p.m.Christine Sinclair on World Cups, equal pay and valuing travel

Soccer fans around the world are bursting with energy from the World Cup.

But a Canadian soccer superstar is watching with mixed emotions.

For women’s team captain Christine Sinclair, the men’s team’s journey highlights the inequities facing her side.

Arguably the country’s established soccer superstars, the women’s team has played in seven consecutive World Cups and last summer brought home Olympic gold from the Tokyo Games.

Like many athletes, Sinclair has been speaking out about the inequalities between men’s and women’s sports, from the fight for equal pay to a recent report on systemic abuse in women’s soccer in the USA.

A woman in faded jeans and a charcoal gray shirt smiles as she sits on a bench in front of a tree.
Sinclair has been talking about the inequalities between men’s and women’s sports. (Raquel Pick)

Sinclair recently spoke with the sunday magazinePiya Chattopadhyay on her new book, playing the long gameand how she, and the world, is evolving when it comes to equality in sports and beyond.

Here is part of their conversation.

You wrote [of your gold medal win] that, “It wasn’t pretty, it was close and it was so us.” So what do you mean by that?

We fight. For as long as I can remember in the national team, we have been the underdog.

Going into these major tournaments, no one expects Canada to win. And the way we won in Tokyo was not the most beautiful. We are not Barcelona; we will never play like this. But what we do is fight for each other. We defend with everything we have. We leave our egos at the door, we just compete.

I want to talk about [men’s national team coach] John Herdmann. You have called it “life changing”. He coached his team for seven years. The team was at a low point when he came in; finish last in the [2011] World Cup. And then it takes you to the 2012 Olympics in London, where you and your team win bronze. What about John Herdman?

He inherited a broken soccer team. You had half the team wondering: Why am I playing?

And in a month it helped us rediscover our why, it helped us rediscover our passion and, like, it brought you back to that little kid who fell in love with the sport at the age of four.

In terms of motivation, in terms of preparation. I have never had the honor of playing for a better coach. In every game you enter you knew you were going to be the most prepared team.

The culture that he created, you can see now with men, that brotherhood, that “We’ll do anything for each other.” That’s him.

And then for me personally, he’s been so much more than just a coach. Someone who I can constantly contact. He spoke at the celebration of my dad’s life.

What is it like to see the hype and excitement around men? [going into the World Cup]?

I have mixed emotions about it. Obviously, as a Canadian, as a soccer fan, I can’t wait to see them compete. I can’t wait to see what they’re going to achieve there. I think they’re going to surprise some people.

As a player on the women’s national team… I’ve played in five of these, and just to see some of the things that are there, like from the [Canadian Soccer Association]it’s almost like they’ve forgotten that the women have been in seven in a row, which is sad.

Unfortunately, it has taken the men’s team to be successful for us to start getting some of the things that we should have had 15 years ago.

Sinclair and teammate Julia Grosso celebrate Canada’s gold medal victory in women’s soccer at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. (Francois Nel/Getty Images)

Both men and women are negotiating with CSA at this time. The women’s team has said: “We are not going to accept an agreement that does not offer us equal pay with men.” The US women’s team was successful in this [in May] after his years-long fight for equality with his men’s team. What did it mean to you and your teammates to see the US women get that win?

It is life changing. Because it is possible. I have a lot of respect for them and a lot of respect for what they have achieved and the path they have laid out for all other women’s teams to follow, not just football.

They have led the charge and it is because of them that I know our next deal will be an equal pay deal with men.

When you say you “know”, is it because there is no other option for you?

If there is no other option. And the CSA knows it. The men know it. And I give credit to the CSA for coming out and saying publicly that it’s going to be an equal pay deal. But this should have happened 10 years ago. I understand that not. And I understand that this is like a new era of women’s sports. You are moving in the right direction. But it’s slow.

[A] A recent investigation by the US Women’s National Soccer League, where you play, found that emotional abuse and sexual misconduct were systemic in sports… [These revelations are] happening because the athletes are talking. It takes courage to do that. It also takes its toll on everyone, right?

Yeah, it’s been a year, needless to say. But yes, I have a lot of respect and admiration for players who step up.

But I want to be clear, this is not a NWSL issue. It’s not a Portland problem. It’s not just sport, it’s everywhere. And I hope to see something good come out of this.

If the NWSL, if the Portland Thorns have to be the new standard, I hope we can be. Because what has happened to women in the NWSL has been unacceptable. But like I said, it’s in youth soccer, it’s the national teams. In Canada we have experimented with Bob Birarda. And I just hope that something good can come out of this where things change.

Sinclair celebrates a goal at the 2015 World Cup. (fake images)

[World Cup host Qatar] it has been criticized for the poor working conditions of migrants, criticized for its record on LGBTQ rights and the environment. So, as someone who has played internationally, do you think FIFA needs to rethink giving countries with poor human rights the right to host? And what is the role of an athlete in all of this?

Well, first of all, the role of the athlete for me is easy. I have played in China at the Olympics and World Cups where there were human rights concerns. And I think people need to understand that these athletes are going to compete. These athletes are potentially in for a once-in-a-lifetime event to proudly represent their country and I don’t think they should be the ones to focus on all the outside noise.

I think you have to focus on external noise, and you’re right, with FIFA. I questioned some of the decisions at times. I mean, I had the opportunity to go to the World Cup and I decided not to. Obviously I will be supporting our men’s team. I am supporting the sport of soccer. But yeah, there are some bigger issues that I can’t get behind.

What is your hope for the next generation of girls entering the sport?

The easy answer is that he’s in a better place than when I joined the team. That the battles that I and my teammates are having to fight will no longer be battles.

But here in Canada? I want to see a professional league. I think it’s unacceptable that we don’t have one. I worry about the next generation if it doesn’t happen, because I see all these other countries giving all this support and funding to professional teams, to their national teams. Look at your England or Spain, France, Germany. I’m worried we’ll be passed over if we don’t believe that.

Written and Produced by Sarah-Joyce Battersby. Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

A soccer player looks to her right with her back to the camera.  Her white t-shirt says
Sinclair’s memoir, Playing the Long Game, was co-authored with Stephen Brunt. (Random House Canada)

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