The Untouchable Legacy of Christine Sinclair: A Retirement Fit for a Legend

Moving the Goalposts

40-year-old has amazed with her 190 goals, inspired with her voice, and bows out as her country’s most iconic sporting figure

Mariam Kourabi

Last night Christine Sinclair, the all-time leading goalscorer in international football, played her final minutes on the global stage. With more than 330 appearances for Canada, the 40-year-old stands second in the list of most-capped female players behind the US’s Kristine Lilly. She has featured in six different World Cups, won two bronze Olympic medals and a heroic gold from the most recent edition in Tokyo. The Canadian has had an unparalleled international career and has promised to give one more year of club football with her beloved Portland Thorns in the National Women’s Super League (NWSL), for a 12th season.

Sinclair single-handedly put Canadian football on the map and her name is synonymous with the nation. The legacy she leaves behind is enormous, having touched every aspect of sport in North America. Current players praise her leadership and humility, the younger generation calls her a role model, head coaches say they become her students and her trophy cabinet is filled with silverware from every professional year she has played.

Christine Sinclair scoring in her fifth consecutive Fifa Women’s World Cup in the 2019 edition. Photograph: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

Named Canada’s player of the year 14 times, Sinclair announced her international retirement in mid-October of this year through a letter to her younger self, posted on social media. “This, goal scoring, will become the signature for the rest of your playing career” wrote Sinclair in the opening portions of the letter. It began at the 2000 Algarve Cup against Norway, her first-ever goal for the national team coming only eight minutes into the game. Only 16 years old at the time she concluded her first camp as the tournament’s joint-second leading scorer. That caught everybody’s attention. Finding the net for the next 23 years was going to be her bread and butter.

Before fully committing to the senior squad, Sinclair tore apart every youth competition in sight. She was named tournament MVP, won the Golden Ball and Golden Shoe after scoring 10 breathtaking goals in the 2002 Under-19 Women’s World Cup at home, helping Canada finish as runner-up, their best-ever result to date. Her 190 international goals is a number no other player, male or female, has even got close to. In second place sits retired USWNT captain Abby Wambach, with the closest active player to that record being Cristiano Ronaldo on 128. It is hard to see anyone take away this title from the legendary Canadian.

It is not just how many goals Sinclair scored, but rather the devastating fashion many of them arrived in. It was the scoring spree for a bronze medal and golden boot at the 2012 Olympics that put her name in the history books. That terrific goal against Costa Rica still makes highlight reels. A stunning free-kick against Germany at the 2011 World Cup had Canadians glued to the TV. And, of course, the equaliser when facing the Netherlands seeing her equal the record of scoring in five consecutive World Cups.

The Burnaby-born player is an all-rounder. Equipped with a right foot that seemed to put every ball it touched in the back of the net, it was accompanied by a lethal left foot other players could only dream of having. Sinclair has been a nightmare to defend against. Powerful headers were part of the deadly toolbox as well as the sharp threaded passes that made Canada’s football flow. Everyone wanted to play with Sinclair as she scored and assisted during her peak years in such a clinical fashion.

Though never playing in Europe, the Canuck shared the pitch with various legends. In 2010, she won a championship with FC Gold Pride (now dissolved) alongside Brazilian trailblazer Marta. Though rivals on the international stage, 2019 Fifa Best Player of the Year Megan Rapinoe cherished the NCAA title with Sinclair in 2005 for the University of Portland. Rapinoe, as so many others, saw the magic of Sinclair and when Fox Soccer asked on X, formerly known as Twitter, who the best player to never win the Ballon d’Or was, the US forward answered: Christine Sinclair.

Christine Sinclair is celebrated all across Canada, especially in her home province of British Columbia. Photograph: Ben Nelms/Reuters

With no professional league in Canada and having spent a few years already at Portland, Sinclair had fallen in love with the city and its passion and history of sport. “I wanted to play for Portland, [I said] I’m not going anywhere else,” recalled Sinclair about her allocation process for the first NWSL season. It was a match made in heaven from the very first kick and they won the championship with “Sincy” named in the NWSL Second XI.

After a decade of finesse on display for the Thorns, the club captain is beyond loved at Providence Park. Be it coming off the bench or walking out on to the pitch with 10 players behind her, she is awarded with a standing ovation, roars of approval and long going claps. Her teammates are often among those clapping. Tobin Heath, the two-time World Cup winner with USWNT and Portland teammates for seven years, said: “She [Sinclair] makes the game seem so simple”.

Off the pitch, a quiet personality that only opened up to those really close to her, Sinclair’s voice changed the game for decades to come. The captain has consistently fought for equality, higher pay, improved standards, and opportunities for youth. “You’ll learn Canadian women’s national team members were playing for $10 a day,” wrote Sinclair in the letter addressing her younger self. The internal negotiations behind the scenes may not be known to most, but Sinclairs’ gritty fights to glue the cracks of the program is why Canadian football exists at the level it does today and continues to flourish. “Creating equality is what you’ll be most proud of,” added Sinclair in the letter, a proud achievement that came in 2023.

Her final World Cup did not end the way it was meant to. A devastating 4-0 loss in the final game of the group stage at the hands of co-hosts Australia was the last she played. Not a fan of media obligations, Sinclair said a few words that sent shivers through the media zone. “I think more of it is like a wake-up call for our federation – the lack of a professional league, the lack of support for our youth national teams.”

Sinclair started playing football before the Canadian Women’s national team made it to the World Cup after missing out on the inaugural 1991 edition in China. The nation’s first qualification out of the group stages in 2003 was with Sinclair’s inclusion, who found the net four minutes into the start of her World Cup journey. Once the rookie among veterans, she has inspired every Canadian football fan to dream big as the roles reversed. Under her wing, youngsters Jessie Fleming and Julia Grosso spent years learning the craft from the master, ready to carry on the torch. Current and former players dedicate their found love of the game to Sinclair.

Christine Sinclair walks off after her final international match. Photograph: Darryl Dyck/AP

It started in Burnaby with a dream 35 years ago, and it was concluded in Vancouver where many dreams were achieved and plenty of history was written. BC Place in British Columbia was renamed Christine Sinclair Place for one evening as the football world says goodbye to a legend. Sinclair closes her international chapter as a Canadian icon, international role model, and sporting pioneer. We have been lucky to live during the era of the best goalscorer in the world.

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2023-12-06 13:53:00
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