In an age in which coaches are loathe to single out players for particular praise at the risk of bruising any egos within their squad, Canada coach John Herdman’s highlight of 2012 certainly took FIFA.com by surprise.
“I supposed it would have to be working with Christine Sinclair,” he said. “As a coach you look forward to those opportunities to work with people that are really unique. She’s helped me move to different levels and vice-versa. I think we’ve got the best out of each other as a coach and a player.
“She picked up the Lou Marsh trophy this year (an award given to Canada’s athlete of the year), which superstars like Wayne Gretzky have won in the past - that’s how highly regarded she is in this country.
“She’s the type that stays after training for 20 to 25 minutes practicing free kicks, and her enthusiasm for the game is very infectious. For someone who has accomplished so much, she asks for so little.”
There has undoubtedly been a remarkable rise in Canada and Sinclair’s fortunes since the former New Zealand coach was appointed at the end of 2011. Herdman joined a Canada side that lost all three games at the FIFA Women’s World Cup in Germany, with many writing off the team’s chances at the Women’s Olympic Football Tournament.
Yet the man, nicknamed ‘the Geordie Mourinho’ by the BBC, masterminded a third-placed finish at London 2012, with Diana Matheson’s injury-time winner over France handing Canada a place on the podium.
“During the Olympics, the team rose to Christine’s level,” he said. “To see Melissa Tancredi score four goals at the Olympics was phenomenal. We finished second-top in the scoring charts with two of our players in the top four goalscorers. Canada only scored one goal at the last World Cup. There was a real team effort there. They all rose up - and we enjoyed ourselves. We loved every minute of those Games.
“Canada hadn't won an Olympic team medal since 1936 - men or women - and we knew that this team had never been past the quarter-finals. They were always a team that promised something, but didn't fulfil people's expectations. This time they did. It was an exciting time. Leaders led and they built their own momentum. It’s been a fantastic year.”
A professional approach
At the beginning of 2013, Herdman will take his side to China for a four-nation tournament and then on to the Cyprus Cup, which they narrowly missed out on winning in 2012. He is also excited about the inaugural season of the National Women’s Soccer League, which will see a large proportion of his Canadian squad signed up to professional contracts.
“It’s unprecedented that we’ll have 16 Canadian players with professional contracts, all on one continent, on one calendar,” he said. “It’s a major step forward for us. That’ll be important for the development of our players. If we can get those younger players into professional leagues, that’ll help us a lot.”
Next year will also see Herdman renew an old rivalry after US Soccer unveiled Tom Sermanni as the new head coach of the US Women’s side. The Englishman’s time in Oceania with the Football Ferns, New Zealand’s women’s side, coincided with the Scot’s spell as head coach of Australia. Herdman admits the renewed competition with his fellow Brit will be fierce, but friendly.
“I look forward to catching up with him as it’s been too long,” he smiled. “In my time in New Zealand I was never able to beat his Australia team and he enjoyed punishing me whenever we played!
“Tommy’s a fantastic coach, he’s got so much experience in the women’s game and he’s got a fantastic tactical brain. Whenever he’s taken Australia to World Cups, they’ve over-performed and I think in Tom’s tenure he helped build that Australia team, took it through some tough times to achieve some great things. America have got a great coach and a great person.”
Looking forward to 2015
After his team’s success at the Olympics, Herdman is optimistic about the future for the female game in Canada, which includes hosting the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2015.
“Canada has got a real appetite for women’s football,” he continued. “It’s already on the map and people are knowledgeable about the players.
“This country fell in love with this team over the summer. The stats told us that one in three Canadians watched our semi-final against the USA; that’s 10 million people. The players, the coaches and the staff still get stopped in the street. People are still talking about the Olympics and the next opportunity for us, which is 2015.
“The great thing about this team is that things have changed, there’s been a mind-set shift. This was a team that hadn’t won anything on the world stage in their history. Now that we’ve won a bronze medal, that fear of failure is starting to disappear.
“If the expectations are there internally, then you’ve got a significant chance of repeating that sort of thing. That’s where I would like things to get to in the future.”