A date that is ingrained in the minds of Canadian soccer players and fans.
In front of over 26,000 fans at Old Trafford in Manchester, Canada’s women’s soccer team faced their American rivals in the semifinals of the 2012 London Olympics.
For some, it remains the greatest women’s soccer game in history.
For others, it’s a bitter memory of questionable refereeing decisions and injustice to the Canadian team, which overshadowed a hat trick performance by Christine Sinclair in arguably the best game of her career.
Now, almost 10 years later, the teams are set for a rematch in the semis at the Tokyo Games on Monday.
Ten players remain from that 2012 showdown. For Canada: Sinclair, midfielders Desiree Scott and Sophie Schmidt, and goalkeeper Erin McLeod. For the United States: defenders Becky Sauerbrunn and Kelley O’Hara, and forwards Megan Rapinoe, Tobin Heath, Carli Lloyd and Alex Morgan.
Before you set your alarms for Monday’s rematch, let’s take a closer look at what happened in 2012.
The Canadians were seventh in the world at the time and were coming off a frustrating 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup, where they finished last out of 16 teams.
Head coach John Herdman had been in the role for less than a year when Canada headed to London. Herdman took over from Carolina Morace, who vacated her position after the 2011 World Cup debacle.
Canada kicked off the group stage against Japan, losing to the defending World Cup champions 2-1. They beat South Africa 3-0, with Sinclair netting a brace, and needed a result against Sweden in the group stage finale to secure a spot in the knockout round.
After falling behind 2-0, the Canadians fought back to earn a 2-2 draw versus the Swedes and finished the group stage with five points, enough to advance to the quarter-finals as one of the top third-place teams.
In the quarter-final clash against the hosts, Great Britain, Canada jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first 30 minutes thanks to goals from Sinclair and 21-year-old forward Jonelle Filigno. The team held on to advance to their first-ever Olympic semi-finals.
Meanwhile, the Americans were coming off a disappointing defeat in the 2011 World Cup final to Japan, losing in penalties. Hungry to reclaim the top of the podium, the United States cruised through their group with a perfect 3-0-0 record and had little difficulties in their quarter-final match, defeating New Zealand 2-0.
North American Rivalry
The stage was set for a semifinal showdown between the CONCACAF rivals. The Canadians, as always, were heavy underdogs against the top-ranked Americans. They hadn’t beaten their neighbours to the south since 2001 (a record that still stands), going 0-4-22 against the U.S. during that span.
Canada had already been defeated twice by the United States earlier in the year, losing 4-0 in the final of the CONCACAF Olympic qualifiers and dropping a pre-tournament friendly by a score of 2-1.
American head coach Pia Sundhage had also rubbed some Canadian fans and media the wrong way with her exuberant goal celebrations, especially during Olympic qualifiers.
In the book The National Team, Sundhage simply said, “We score goals and you’re happy.”
Herdman added some fuel to the fire with comments at his media conference the day before the game.
“One of the big threats we’ve got to take care of, and what we’ve paid attention to, is the illegal marking in the box on their corners and free kicks,” he said about the Americans. “Some of the blocking tactics, which are highly illegal – we’ll keep an eye on them in the game.”
The United States were rolling heading into the semifinal. They hadn’t conceded a goal in the tournament since the 14th minute of their opening game against France.
With Japan awaiting in the gold-medal match, many American fans were already looking forward to their team getting revenge against the Japanese for their World Cup defeat a year earlier.
Adding to the stakes: Sinclair and American forward Abby Wambach were both chasing Mia Hamm’s all-time international goal record of 158. Sinclair entered the semifinal with 140 goals, two behind Wambach.
Both teams deployed the same starting lineups that had earned them wins in their respective quarter-finals. For Canada, their front line was bolstered by the 1-2 punch of Sinclair and Melissa Tancredi (who was tied for the tournament lead with four goals), along with Filigno.
In midfield, the Canadians had the steadying presence of Diana Matheson, Schmidt and Scott (in the tournament where her nickname ‘The Destroyer’ was coined).
Canada’s backline had undergone several changes due to injuries. Lauren Sesselmann had transitioned from her usual fullback spot to start at centre-back, alongside Carmelina Moscato, while Rhian Wilkinson and Marie-Ève Nault featured on the outside. McLeod, coming off a clean sheet against Great Britain, started in goal.
“I believe it’s going to be a match of epic proportions,” Brandi Chastain, former U.S. international and NBC commentator, said prophetically before kickoff.
Almost immediately after the opening whistle, the Canadians looked to set the tone. Tancredi, forever earning her nickname of Tanc, was called for a foul after she bodied Lauren Cheney off the ball. Seconds later, the Americans were awarded another free kick for an apparent push to the back of Morgan by Sinclair.
At the Canadian end line, the ball appeared to go off Morgan before going out to touch, but Norwegian referee Christina Pedersen called a corner kick for the Americans. Moscato, who was battling Morgan for possession, threw the ball irritably behind her after she heard the ref’s call.
What would normally be an innocuous decision became the first sign of things to come.
In another confusing call, Tancredi drew a foul in the American end after a tussle with veteran Christie Rampone, even though both were battling for the ball and Tancredi ended up throwing the American defender to the ground.
GOAL – The Canadians struck first. Nault sent a long ball up to Tancredi at the top of the U.S. 18-yard box. Tancredi took a touch and cleverly set up Sinclair with the outside of her boot. Sinclair beat Rachel Buehler, then cut back inside to get around O’Hara before burying the ball in the bottom corner behind goalkeeper Hope Solo.
The Canadian captain celebrated her 141st goal with her arms out wide, as if in flight.
Pedersen called Filigno for a handball inside the American final third, even though the ball clearly struck the top of her shoulder.
Schmidt took the legs out from under Rapinoe, but no call was made. Schmidt was able to regain possession for Canada as Rapinoe appealed emphatically to Pedersen to no avail.
Tancredi was whistled for a foul after Wambach collided with her and fell to the ground. On the ensuing free kick, Morgan connected on a header that just missed the bottom corner of Canada’s net.
Just under five minutes into the second half, Matheson made a sliding tackle on Rapinoe just outside the Canadian box. Matheson didn’t appear to get any of the ball and took out Rapinoe’s legs. Pedersen didn’t call a foul and awarded Canada a goal kick.
“Curious decisions by the referee today,” said then-TSN commentator Jason de Vos.
GOAL – The Americans drew level. In a fitting moment for the Olympic stage, Rapinoe scored an Olimpico – a goal scored directly off a corner kick. She snuck in her shot at the near post with Sinclair, Sesselmann and McLeod all in the vicinity, but none of them were able to prevent the ball from crossing the line.
A ball sent in from Sinclair appeared to strike Rapinoe’s arm inside the American penalty area, but the play went on. Seconds later, Scott was given a yellow card for a challenge on Wambach, and the first sound of boos from the crowd were heard at Old Trafford.