Since Karina LeBlanc made her international debut for Canada on 21 July 1998, much has changed for both the goalkeeper and women’s football in general. “When I started my career, we would have maybe eight people in the stands,” she recalled in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, having hung up her gloves after the FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada.
“When I ended my career in 2015 at my home World Cup, there were sold-out stadiums and the matches were shown around the world,” she continued. “The game has grown in terms of both the number of women who are playing it and the amount of people who support it. It’s grown to the point – especially in Canada – where footballers are now household names. For me, women’s football has become an inspiration to many people around the world,” she added.
People have been inspired not just by the sport itself but also by the players who have helped to advance the game to its current status. LeBlanc represented her country for 18 years, playing at five Women’s World Cups and two Women’s Olympic Football Tournaments and winning the bronze medal with the Canucks at London 2012 along the way. With achievements like this, it is little surprise that many young players choose the record-breaking shot-stopper as their role model.
For the Atlanta-born LeBlanc, this is just one more reason to give something back and remain a part of the women’s game – and what better way to do that than to start with the simple idea of sharing her medal with as many people as possible. What began as a series of football camps quickly turned into an entire business model when the retired goalkeeper founded her own company, iS4, together with Christine Sinclair, Diana Matheson and Rhian Wilkinson. As part of this enterprise, the quartet not only help young girls to improve their ball skills but also lead discussions to share the experiences they have gathered during their years as elite athletes, in talks covering subjects such as leadership, resilience, synergy between players, and mutual support.
“We’re a team empowering other teams,” LeBlanc said. “We’re four different women from four different backgrounds with four different perspectives. We can look at the Olympics and how the pressure of that situation enabled us to connect. That’s exactly what companies are about. They try to get everybody to perform at the highest level with a high-performance mindset,” she added, illustrating the similarities between football and the ‘normal’ world of work.
Guest speaker at the FIFA Conference for Equality and Inclusion
The 36-year-old only began to recognise her full potential when she participated in the FIFA Female Leadership Development Programme, which she successfully completed in February 2017. “For me, it helped me realise that I am more than just a soccer player,” she said. “It sounds like a simple thing, but it’s huge. My head coach John Herdman said to me in 2013: ‘If you think our purpose on this earth is to play soccer, then I failed you.’ I’ll never forget that conversation. It made me wonder: what is my purpose?”
Football helped LeBlanc, who spent part of her childhood on the eastern Caribbean island of Dominica, to gain confidence and find her voice. Before long, that voice was being heard and led to her becoming a UNICEF Ambassador. Actors, musicians, athletes and politicians across the world dedicate their time to this charity to advocate the concerns and rights of children around the globe.
“I remember my first trip,” the former Chicago Red Stars custodian recalled. “I got to do a soccer camp for young girls in Honduras. They don’t get to turn on the TV and see female footballers playing; their reality was just what they saw. They saw their mothers having kids. I remember talking to young girls at the age of 14 holding their babies,” she continued. “Going there and dropping a football and saying: ‘Hey, that’s what I do for a living because I dared to dream big; I dared to believe that I can do something crazy.’ It shifted my perspective and I thought: maybe my purpose on this earth isn’t just kicking a ball. Maybe football prepared me for something bigger.”
It is words like these, coupled with her experience and strong personality, that make LeBlanc the perfect guest speaker for this year’s FIFA Conference for Equality and Inclusion, which takes place this Monday.
“I went to the conference last year and it was an honour to be part of it,” she explained. “For me, it is an honour to take part this year because of the topic. I can only tell my story, go through my journey and talk about my difficulties,” added the Canadian with a predilection for flamboyant hairstyles. “At the same time, it is great to educate myself. As an athlete, I became obsessed with growth, and I think education is the key – conversation is the key. I’m looking forward to having a conversation about this and talking about the perspective of the women’s game. Being an athlete who has recently retired and gone through the transition into the real world has been an interesting journey and I have learned a lot. I’m excited to talk about my experiences but also to learn.”