LYON — Karina LeBlanc hurt for the Canadian women’s national soccer team as though she was still a member when eliminated from the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
The former national team goaltender, now head of women’s football for CONCACAF and World Cup commentator on FOX Sports, took Canada’s loss to Sweden in the Round of 16 hard.
LeBlanc, 39, who was part of FIFA Legends match here at the Lyon Fan Zone on Friday, had high expectations for Canada going into the tournament.
“I know the girls are extremely disappointed from talking to them,” LeBlanc said. “I think one of the things is that if you look at it from a technical and tactical standpoint, it’s the best soccer Canada has technically played. We came short in the end and I think there are a lot of valuable lessons in that. In the Olympics next year – I don’t think any of those ladies are retiring before then – it’s going to create that extra bite.”
Canada won its first two games of the tournament and secured a place in the knockout stage for the first time at a World Cup held in Europe. Canada were relegated to second place in Group E with a 2-1 loss against the Netherlands in its final group game and then were eliminated in the next round with a 1-0 loss against Sweden.
Sweden and the Netherlands faced each other in the second semifinal Wednesday with the Dutch advancing to face the United States in the final on Sunday.
“We’ve been through this before in 2011 and then in 2012 they won a medal (at Olympics),” LeBlanc said. “So I think Canada should be hopeful of this team, because when I look at this team, it wasn’t the result we wanted but the possession and tactical area where the game has been growing, we’ve actually developed in that area.
“I’m optimistic about the future, but I know the ladies are very disappointed in the way it ended because they wanted to make Canada proud, they wanted to make this nation proud and that’s where they probably hurt most.”
The core of the Canadian team is still approaching its prime. Canada will attempt to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics early next year and then are expected to be a more experienced team at the 2023 Women’s World Cup, which has yet to be awarded, currently in the bidding process.
In France, Canada played attractive soccer under head coach Kenneth Heiner-Moller, but were unable to make the most of the chances they created. One more goal against either Cameroon or New Zealand in its opening two games would have Canada just needing a tie against the Netherlands to win the group.
“It’s just the final finish. The team will say that. They’ve been working on it and it’s just a matter of inches,” LeBlanc said. “That’s this game, it’s a matter of inches and these women now will get to go out, work on that and I think now the floodgates will open and Sincy (Christine Sinclair) will break that record so she gets that recognition she deserves.”
Sinclair is three goals away from surpassing retired American striker Abby Wambach for the all-time international goal-scoring record – men or women. Sinclair scored against the Netherlands and then passed up a penalty opportunity in the contest against Sweden, which could have tied the game.
“I think as a former teammate of hers, we all wanted her to do it here just because she’s been so deserving and we all wanted her to get her seat of greatness and it will happen,” LeBlanc said. “But I look forward to the next step, because I’ve been through this with the team and I’ve been through that pit, that hurt, that brokenness and I know where they are.
“They’re broken, but they’re proud of the way they’ve played. They’re broken because they let the country down and it’s moments like this that define the character and I think if Canada continues to support them the way they have, they’ll be rewarded because I’m looking at the Olympics as a new platform for this team and I believe in them.”
SHOW ME THE MONEY
FIFA president Gianni Infantino committed US $1 billion to women’s soccer over the next four years, which is expected to take the game to a new level.
Women’s soccer is growing exponentially, particularly in Europe as they try to close the gap on the United States.
“This World Cup has been a success, if you look at the numbers, they’ve broken record left, right and centre,” LeBlanc said. “And it grows and now to have the president come out and say that, that’s a strong statement because the women’s game is moving forward and that’s where they want to move with it.”
LeBlanc spent 17 years as a member of the Canadian national team, retiring after the World Cup in 2015. Since then, she’s gone into an administrative role with FIFA and is head of women’s soccer for CONCACAF.
“Having meetings with FIFA, personally, I know that this is on their new personal agenda,” she said. “I know with my new position as head of women’s football for CONCACAF theses are continual conversations and when the president comes out and makes a statement like that, you know and I’ve been in meetings with him that this is about just getting the job done.
“This tournament has shown the opportunities of the women’s game, the commercialization of the sport. The fans are showing up, the passion. It’s not just the men’s game anymore; it’s the women’s game and as a former player, I’m proud and not being an administrator inside, we’re having real conversations and I’m happy about that.”
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On Twitter: @DerekVanDiest