How Canada earned Olympic gold: Grit, determination and defense

For the first time, Canada is an Olympic champion. Capping off a gritty and improbable run to the final, the Canadians got past a superb Sweden via sudden-death penalty kicks as Canada proved that, even with Christine Sinclair, it takes a team to win gold.

With the win, Canada affirms its place among the top teams in women’s soccer after earning its first two medals in the last two Olympics, both of those bronze. With Friday’s dramatic defeat of Sweden, Canada becomes only the third team to ever win three medals in the Olympics soccer tournament behind the United States and Germany.

Sweden arrived as the heavy favorite after winning all of their games en route to the final and out-scoring opponents 13-3. Canada, meanwhile, scraped by, with three draws along the way, including a scoreless one against Brazil in the quarterfinal that had to be decided by penalty kicks. They were more effective at defending than scoring — Canada scored just five goals in five games to reach the final — but their gold medal was earned, not with finesse but pure determination.

Here is a look at how Canada did it, and what comes next:

Canada defends its way to the top

There was a moment in the final five minutes of extra time Friday that summed up Canada’s journey through the Olympics. Sweden had again gotten into Canada’s box, and midfielder Hanna Bennison got her head on what surely looked like the game-winning goal at point-blank range. But goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe and a couple of defenders flung their bodies in the way in a messy cluster, doing anything to keep the ball from crossing the line.

It wasn’t pretty, but there are no style points in Olympic soccer.

“Tonight’s gold medal win epitomizes this group: they fought to the very, very end,” said Canada coach Bev Priestman. “They weren’t willing to let that slip, and that’s a testament to all the players.”

Sweden was clearly the more dominant side, as seen in both the eye test and the statistics: the Swedes took 30 shots compared to Canada’s 13, and most of them were quality scoring chances. In the stretch that followed the stop on Bennison, Sweden took three more shots from inside the box, including one Lina Hurtig header that just sailed wide before the whistle blew to move the match to penalty kicks.

In truth, Canada has run into a talent differential at times in Japan — player for player, Sweden packs more of a punch — yet the Canadians have played with the self-belief to gut out the narrow results they’ve needed every step of the way. Canada is a team that’s far greater than the sum of its parts, scrapping out of the group stage after two draws and a narrow win over Chile, and then barely eking past Brazil on penalty kicks after a 0-0 draw.

It was clear, though, that Canada was enjoying a special tournament after their win over the USWNT for the first time in 20 years in the semifinal. The Americans were plenty culpable in that result — their world-renowned attack looked flat and devoid of chemistry — but Canada didn’t make it easy, playing stout defense and taking their chance when it arrived.

Canada’s attack generated almost nothing in the semifinal — emphasis on the “almost.” A penalty given up by U.S. defender Tierna Davidson was a fluke — Canada was not even threatening for a goal on the play when Davidson accidentally kicked Deanne Rose, who was running away from goal — but it was enough. Their plan made sense: keep the U.S. from scoring and then push with the hope something would break their way, which always happened in this Olympics when they needed it.

It’s fitting, then, that Canada’s equalizer against Sweden came from the same type of penalty in the 65th minute with a gold medal on the line. Amanda Ilestedt accidentally clipped the heel of Christine Sinclair in the box, but it wasn’t as if Canada had been dangerous by that point. As she did against the USWNT, Jessie Fleming stepped to the spot and took the penalty well, with confidence and power.

“I think we now play to our strengths,” Sinclair said of Canada’s evolution. “We can defend — we’re world-class at defending — and then we have 100-meter sprinters up top.”

Sinclair, who was chasing the all-time record for goals in Olympics, only scored once in this tournament, by the way, but that’s even more of a testament to Canada’s collective effort in clawing their way to the final.

Sinclair used to carry the Canadians on her back, but not here. This was a true team victory.

A harsh ending for Sweden

Sweden will be remembered by Americans as the team that stunned the U.S. women’s national team with a 3-0 loss to open the Tokyo Olympics, a shock the USWNT never recovered from until the bronze medal game. But Sweden has been more than that, too: they were the best team in Japan up until a penalty shootout against Canada in which four of their kick-takers failed to convert.

Sure, Sweden was among the favorites to contend for a gold medal before the tournament even began, but the Swedes mostly outplayed even those high expectations. They won every game on their way to the final and trailed just once, for all of four minutes.

“I’m trying to wake up from this bad dream,” said goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl, who saved two penalty kicks. “Congratulations to Canada, they did very well, but it was our gold to lose.”

What’s most remarkable about Sweden’s campaign in Japan is just how different this team looked from the last Olympics, where they medaled for the first time, winning silver and solidifying their spot among the top teams in the world. In 2016, U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo famously said Sweden played like “a bunch of cowards” given their pragmatic approach of absorbing attacks and looking opportunistically to counter. But this time around, Sweden played brave and aggressive soccer.

Under coach Peter Gerhardsson, who has said he wants his players to be free, the Swedes push their wingers high and allow their fullbacks to get forward and overlap, which creates dangerous numerical advantages. They don’t sit back in defensive blocks like the Sweden of old: they press and force their opponents to make mistakes.

Sweden’s press is also where the first goal came in Friday’s gold medal game. The Swedes won the ball near the center line and in a flash they were going the other way, with Kosovare Asllani dribbling her way through two red shirts. Asllani then crossed into the box to meet the run of Stina Blackstenius, who has been lethal in this tournament, finishing with a one-time strike.

Sweden was betrayed by a poor performance in the penalty shootout as goalkeeper Labbe tried every mind game she could to throw them off. She made them wait at the penalty spot for as long as possible, she looked the kick-takers directly in the eyes with a smirk, and she danced back and forth across the goal to give the illusion of a shrinking goal. Whether Labbe had gotten in their heads or not, two players who would be expected to score missed the target — Asllani and Caroline Seger — and two others had shots blocked.

“I told everyone, ‘Look, she’s moving around, just focus on where you’re hitting it,’ ” Lindahl said. “I don’t know if people watched video of her individually, but for sure there were scouting videos of her. Credit to her, she managed to do something.”

Sinclair all but admitted that Sweden had been the best team in the tournament, but she rightly pointed out that Sweden could have put the game away but failed.

“My hat goes off to them. This entire tournament, they were incredible,” said Sinclair. “They were incredible tonight. They have such a bright future ahead of them. They’re going to be a power for years and years to come. The only thing is, tonight they let us come into halftime only down 1-0, and a team like ours will fight.”

The last hurrah for Canadian and Swedish greats?

In addition to having more international goals than any other human on the planet at 187, Canadian legend Christine Sinclair now also has an Olympic gold medal. At 38 years old, nobody would blame her for ending her career on a high note. But she sure didn’t sound ready to hang up her cleats after Friday’s gold medal game.

“I headed into this tournament knowing that I’m not making any decisions out of joy or sadness, depending how this tournament went,” she said. “I’ve never done that in my career, that’s not how I make decisions. So, who knows?”

Sinclair then gave a glance to Canada head coach Bev Priestman, a gesture as if to say it was up to the coach — and the coach is clearly on board. “Another Olympics, another Olympics,” Priestman said. Sinclair interjected: “Well, there’s another World Cup out there first: we’ll see.”

A few minutes later, unprompted, Priestman called Sinclair an “all-time great who’s gonna go on for another four years… I can feel it and sense it.” Sinclair joked she could be the new Formiga — a reference to the 43-year-old Brazilian player who has competed in every edition of the Olympics since women’s soccer was added in 1996.

It’s easy to see why Canada would be keen to keep their captain. Sinclair has carried the Canadian team for roughly two decades, helping Canada punch above their weight when they otherwise didn’t have the talent to compete at the highest levels. As she’s aged, her role on the field has changed, something Sinclair has embraced instead of fighting.

“I just want to help this team win. Whatever was needed, whether that’s clearing corners in our six-yard box, I don’t care — I just want to help the team win,” Sinclair said. “I don’t think I did anything special tonight. I did my job.”

Sweden’s goalkeeper, Hedvig Lindahl, is also 38 years old and when asked if this might be her last tournament for Sweden, she said, “for sure, which really makes it that much harder.”

“I really went for it and I thought, ‘Now, this is it,'” she said.

Sweden has still never won a world title. They won the first European Championship in 1984, but haven’t managed to do it again since.

In a career spanning nearly two decades, Lindahl has won a slew of club titles with Chelsea and Wolfsburg, and she has a silver medal from the Rio Olympics in 2016. She thought the games in Tokyo might be different, but now she is left hoping Sweden can do it after she’s gone.

“I hope they can keep building: it will be nice to see Sweden progress from here,” she said.