Canada’s women’s soccer team is riding high at the Tokyo Olympics after slaying the dragon that was the top-ranked United States, a historic result that ended the Reds’ 20-year winless skid against their southern neighbours.
The Canadians’ epic 1-0 win in the semifinals on Monday in Kashima, courtesy of Jessie Fleming’s goal in the 74th minute, ended a 37-game winless streak against the Americans dating back to their last win on March 11, 2001. To put that into context, Fleming was only three years old at the time, Jean Chrétien was in his third term as Prime Minister, and the world had just survived the infamous “Y2K crisis.”
Now the Canadians have a chance to win their first gold medal after claiming bronze at London 2012 and Rio 2016. But believe it or not, Canada faces a much tougher task versus Sweden in Friday’s gold medal match at Tokyo’s National Stadium than it did against the U.S. in the semis.
Sweden, listed at No. 5 in the current FIFA world rankings (three spots ahead of Canada), has been far and away the best team of the tournament thus far. Led by star striker Stina Blackstenius’s team-high four goals, the Swedes are a perfect 5-0-0 in Japan, scoring 13 goals along the way (second among all nations), and have conceded just three times.
As the reigning silver medalists, the Scandinavians sent a loud message to the rest of the field on the opening day of competition about their hunger for gold when they walloped the U.S. 3-0 in Tokyo. They went on to win the rest of their first-round matches to finish first in Group G ahead of the Americans, and followed that up by easily brushing aside hosts Japan in the quarter-finals.
While far from impressive in a 1-0 win over Australia in the semifinals, Sweden survived wave after wave of attacking pressure from the Aussies for the majority of the second half to see out the result and record its third clean sheet.
With a ruthless efficiency in front of goal and a stingy defence that has proven difficult to break down – not to mention being unbeaten in its last 13 games overall (11 wins) going back to March, 2020 – Sweden heads into Friday’s gold medal showdown with Canada as the favourite.
What’s more, the Swedes have history on their side, sporting an impressive 14-4-5 all-time record against Canada dating back to their first meeting on July 5, 1987 in Blaine, Minnesota.
The Swedes are unbeaten in their last three matches (with two wins) vs. Canada, and the Reds have very unhappy memories of the last time they squared off at the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in France.
The roles were reversed two years ago, with Canada the favourites against Sweden. But it was Blackstenius who opened the scoring to give her side a 1-0 lead in the 55th minute after it controlled much of the game up until that point.
Midway through the second half, Sweden’s Kosovare Asllani was called for a hand ball inside the 18-yard box and Canada was awarded a penalty. In a major surprise, it wasn’t captain Christine Sinclair who stepped up to the spot, but rather Janine Beckie. The tension-filled moment proved to be too much for Beckie, as her penalty was easily saved by goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl. Sweden comfortably saw out the game to earn the win and send Canada crashing out of the World Cup in the round of 16.
But if Canada proved anything in the semifinals against the U.S., it’s that history means very little at the Tokyo Olympics. Now is all that matters, and the present day looks pretty promising for the Canadians.
Sinclair has been relatively quiet, her only goal coming in Canada’s opening 1-1 draw vs. Japan. But while the attack hasn’t been spectacular, it has found a way to produce enough goals to make up for Sinclair’s lack of production – Beckie’s brace in a 2-1 win over Chile marked the only time in the competition that the Reds scored more than once in a single game.
Critically, coach Bev Priestman’s side has never trailed at the Tokyo Games, conceding just three times, and recording back-to-back clean sheet victories in the knockout stage against Brazil and the U.S.
A defence anchored by the sublime centre-back duo of Kadeisha Buchanan and Vanessa Gilles has been impenetrable, while goalkeeper Stephanie Labbé has been one of Canada’s most important contributors by routinely putting her body in harm’s way and making critical saves – including a pair of stops in the penalty shootout win over Brazil in the quarter-finals.
By reaching Friday’s final, Canada has already made history by becoming just the third nation to win medals at three successive Olympic tournaments (2012 to 2021), joining the U.S. (1996 to 2012) and Germany (2000 to 2008). But don’t expect the Canadians to adopt a “just happy to be here” approach.
“We were clear that we definitely wanted to change the colour of the medal and we knew that was a massive, massive task. But I knew if the group believed when they stepped over the white line we could absolutely do it. We’ve got bags of talent in the team,” Priestman said in the aftermath of the win over the U.S.
“For the program, it sets us up really nicely to keep pushing forward. But I’m clear that winners win, and we’re going into this final to go and get a gold medal.”
John Molinaro is one of the leading soccer journalists in Canada, having covered the game for over 20 years for a number of media outlets, including Sportsnet, CBC Sports and Sun Media. He is currently the editor-in-chief of TFC Republic, a website dedicated to in-depth coverage of Toronto FC and Canadian soccer. To check out TFC Republic, CLICK HERE.