News came out last week announcing the shortlists of the FIFA awards. If you’re a Canadian women’s national soccer team (CANWNT) fan, you probably noticed someone missing from the list. Like many of your fellow CANWNT fans, you’re probably feeling annoyance (to put it nicely) as Christine Sinclair has once again not made the shortlist for the Best FIFA Women’s Player of the Year award. This is her eighth time being snubbed (previously nominated in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2012, and 2013); not once has she been shortlisted. Just to add some dressing to the snub salad, John Herdman (previously nominated in 2012 and 2015) was also left out of the final three shortlist this year. For the third time. If you’re like me, this is the sound you immediately heard in your head upon word of this news:
I’m not going to cover the Herdman snub specifically because three times is still a tolerable amount. Although, what does a guy have to do in order to make the shortlist? Apparently leading a team to an Olympic medal and jumping up the FIFA ranking all while smoothly integrating younger players into the national team is not enough. Sundhage and Neid should be there. Ellis? Haha. Just another cruel joke from 2016.
So let’s delve into this issue. How was Christine Sinclair’s performance in 2016?
Sinclair started the year off with the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament; a tournament in which her first goal of the year was to surpass Mia Hamm’s international goals scored record. One hundred fifty nine international goals. Incredible. That’s just the start of 2016. By the end of 2016, she was at 165 international goals and her 250th cap. In the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying tournament, Sinclair played through a calf injury (with less minutes played than usual) but still managed to show up in the most important match when she was needed. Canada easily cruised through the group stage matches and made the semi-final match against Costa Rica. The semi-final matches in the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament are always the biggest games as they determine which teams qualify for the Olympics. Sinclair scored Canada’s first two goals in that game. The two goals needed to beat Costa Rica. The second goal that she scored easily goes down as one of the most memorable Sinclair goals of all-time. Pure brilliance and control. Absolutely world class.
Sinclair’s performance in the Olympics was particularly key to Canada’s success as well. Her goals came at vital times throughout the tournament. She scored in Canada’s opening game against Australia, securing a 2-0 win and helping to set the tone for Canada’s Olympic performance. The Canada versus Australia game was a gritty performance led by Sinclair, who assisted on Janine Beckie’s record-breaking goal to give Canada the opening goal before going down to ten players less than 20 minutes later. She also scored the game-winning goal in the match against Brazil; leading her team to a consecutive bronze medal. Sinclair finished the Olympic tournament with three goals, tied with teammate Janine Beckie, Beatriz (BRA), and Sara Däbritz (GER). Melanie Behringer was the top goal scorer in the Olympics with five goals. When compared to her National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) counterparts – Sinclair was voted the NWSL Player of the Olympics by the NWSL Media Association.
How did Sinclair’s performance compare to the other candidates?
By the usual standard of rewarding players and coaches for teams that perform well in a World Cup or Olympic tournament year, this year’s shortlist doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Melanie Behringer – yes, absolutely, that makes sense. She was the leading goal scorer from the gold medalist team at the Rio Olympics. Marta and Carli Lloyd? Both scored two goal in the Olympics and both of their teams didn’t win a medal. Lloyd makes the list by having the most international goals in 2016 (but she’s also tied with Alex Morgan for that title this year – who didn’t make the list of candidates), but the fact that the US were eliminated in the quarterfinals is a reason for her to not make the final three for the award. The same goes for Marta who overall had a pretty good year but struggled in the Olympic tournament. So by that standard…it doesn’t add up. When you look at the candidates on the full list: Christine Sinclair (CAN), Lotta Schelin (SWE), Dzsenifer Marozsán (GER), Saki Kumagai (JPN), Amandine Henry (FRA), Sara Däbritz (GER), Camile Abily (FRA), Melanie Behringer (GER), Carli Lloyd (USA) and Marta (BRA); I’m surprised by Sinclair’s not making the top three due to Canada’s success this year. I also expected either Lotta Schelin or Dzsenifer Marozsán to make the shortlist given Germany and Sweden’s success at the Olympics. Goes to show what I know, I suppose.
Now that’s just international play; if you add in the whole club play issue then I can see why Marta would make the list and why Lotta Schelin or Christine Sinclair would have an even stronger case to be shortlisted, but then how are players like Ada Hegerberg not even on the candidates list? The lack of clarification on how to judge the candidates in the voting process is, at best, confusing. Especially when club coaches are considered for the Best FIFA Coach of the Year.
There’s also the question of how to gauge a player’s performance for these awards. Often the list is littered with forwards. Midfielder, defenders and goalkeepers do make the candidate list but are rarely shortlisted. You can’t just look at a player’s statistics and goals to really gauge how impactful they were on the pitch. This is how the likes of Becky Sauerbrunn, Kim Little, Nilla Fischer, Formiga, Wendie Renard, Hedvig Lindahl (the list could go on and on) are overlooked when it comes to shortlisting players. A player’s impact on the field is a much more complicated question – and not one to leave to the current voting process for these awards.
Does Canada need to play more games for greater recognition?
I’m not one to shy away from blaming Canada Soccer for a whole slew of things but Sinclair and Herdman not making the FIFA shortlists? Nah, that’s not really on them. Canada played 20 games in 2016. They played 18 games in 2015. They play their fair share of games (you can search for all their games here if you really want). Should Canada have played at least one post-Olympic match before the end of 2016? Yes, but it doesn’t need to be a home friendly either. Having a home friendly post-Olympics in October or November would have been nice but considering it takes about three to four months of promotion to get 20,000 – 30,000 people in the stands for a home friendly game, it makes sense that Canada Soccer took the cautious route and waited until they could promote it as best as possible with “double bronze medalists.” Could Canada Soccer schedule games better? HECK YES! Our team should not have a four to six month gap where they don’t play. It’s unacceptable. It takes the team out of the spotlight both nationally and internationally, and that spotlight is necessary to keep the team in the forefront of people’s minds and helps when voters for the FIFA awards make their decisions.
Instead of having these long gaps after big tournaments, add in a game here and there like most other top national teams do. Sweden and Germany played 18 and 17 games, respectively, this year. Sweden played four games post-Olympics and Germany played five. When you take out the EURO qualifying matches, Sweden played two friendlies and Germany played three.
Canada doesn’t need to go the way of the US women’s national soccer team and play a ridiculous amount of friendlies just to make some cash. Guess how many friendlies the US played this year? Thirteen! When you add in competitive matches they played a total of 25 games this year. That’s honestly flabbergasting, and I think it did their team a disservice. They had a lack of quality matches before the Olympics and their team looked tired by the time the tournament rolled around.
There is a huge upside to all of those friendlies they played though: international recognition. Another bonus: they televised all of their games. Sure, it helps that they are on home soil and therefore have the infrastructure to do so, but people (not just fans) are able to see them play consistently. With their team being highly visible they are able to capitalize on that when it comes to recognition and notoriety. Canada played multiple games this year with only a livestream of some of their matches (granted this is a huge improvement from years past). This isn’t just a CANWNT problem but a greater problem within women’s soccer in general. Women’s games aren’t made into huge televised events, with the exception of the World Cup or the Olympics.
There’s the other issue of money. The Canadian Soccer Association (CSA) can’t afford that many friendlies. They can’t afford a lot of things. But if they could afford more friendlies, it doesn’t mean that the CANWNT needs to play more friendlies. Our players don’t need the added pressure of constantly performing at home, and it potentially does very little to improve our players when walloping a team 10-0, 9-0, 8-0…but in non-World Cup or Olympic years, Canada Soccer could do a better job of scheduling friendlies with Asian, African, South American, and emerging European countries. These games could prove fruitful in several ways for the Canadian team: there’s always turnover with players and less competitive matches are a way to get newer players used to the pace and tactics of an international game, and it would increase Canada’s recognition among smaller footballing nations. In particular, the African and Asian confederations have large memberships, and if Canada could increase the votes coming from some of those nations, we’d likely have more players making the final three in the FIFA awards.
I’m not saying Canada needs to go on a marketing tour so our players can be internationally recognized. During World Cup and Olympic years, we’re better off playing top thirty teams and replicating highly competitive matches so we’re properly prepared. We had maybe some of the best Olympic preparation anyone could have asked for in 2016. We played in the Algarve Cup against Denmark, Iceland, Belgium and Brazil. We then played five friendlies: Netherlands (plus one closed door match), Brazil twice, China and France. Brazil, China and France were all in the Olympics and are all ranked in the top thirty. We ended up playing both Brazil and France in the Olympics – honestly, could you get better Olympic preparation than that? I think not. Okay, maybe one friendly against Germany would have been nice as we had to play them twice but, c’mon, now I’m just being picky. But in the less critical years, CSA could spread out highly competitive games and games that improve their brand recognition internationally, all while helping to improve women’s soccer popularity worldwide. Many women’s national soccer teams are struggling to get support from their own federations or associations and face stigma for playing football. Cooperating with nations in these regions is mutually beneficial to combat discrimination and harassment, and challenge barriers while spreading women’s soccer internationally.
Why hasn’t Sinclair cracked the shortlist?
The biggest culprits are the voting mechanics of the FIFA awards, combined with Christine Sinclair’s lack of international recognition.
The voting breaks down as follows:
“a. captains of national teams can vote for coaches from the national team they represent; b. captains and coaches of national teams can vote for players from the national team they represent; c. nominated captains and coaches are not permitted to vote for themselves; d. specialist journalists can vote for players and coaches who are from their own country or who represent clubs affiliated to their own country; e. fans registered on FIFA.com can vote for men’s and women’s football players and coaches, provided that any such vote is cast fairly and in accordance with these rules of allocation.”
The voting process…sees the vote split equally between the four groups. Each group’s votes are counted, converted into a percentage and divided by four” – FIFA, Rules of Allocation
Does CSA give Sinclair the recognition she deserves? Yes…at least in Canada, that is. Sinclair is and will continue to be the face of women’s soccer in this country….very, very likely until she retires. Her name has always shone brightly when it comes to Canadian soccer and the CSA knows it and they capitalize on it at every turn. Sinclair has made huge contributions to the women’s game within Canada, but Canada Soccer has done a less than stellar job at promoting her or our other players internationally. It makes sense, though, that they’re not overly concerned with promoting the CANWNT internationally when there’s still a need to grow women’s soccer within Canada. That should remain CSA’s top priority as it will help expand the player pool and hopefully lead to more success for the CANWNT. Every national soccer federation/association is in a different phase when it comes to the women’s game. This is the phase that Canada Soccer is in.
There’s another problem, though. Canadian soccer isn’t recognized as a brand of soccer that is worth making these shortlists. What is Canadian soccer? What is our brand? Think about it. German soccer is efficient and organized. Brazilian soccer is creative and has technical flair. Americans are the powerhouse – fast, strong, increasingly technical. Japan takes everyone’s breath away with fast tiki taka movement. All of those countries have an identifiable brand of soccer. Of the players that have made the shortlist only three other countries besides the ones listed above have had players make the shortlist: Sweden, England and China. Sweden, England and China also have mostly identifiable brands of soccer too. Similar to those already mentioned, albeit less successful.
Canadian soccer is just starting to form an identity, culture and model of play. One that will continue to evolve but one that John Herdman is helping to mould, and one that the CSA is trying to improve upon after years and years of disunity and disorganization in the Canadian soccer structure. I’m not saying an identifiable brand of soccer is necessary to make the shortlist but without international praise or recognition, how can we expect other nation’s coaches and captains who vote for these awards to vote for our players and coaches?
So should Christine Sinclair have made the shortlist for 2016? Yes. Why didn’t she make the shortlist this year? A multitude of factors. How does a CANWNT fan deal with another snub? Personally, I have a file titled: “Christine Sinclair: Chronically Underappreciated While Consistently Kicking Ass” where I mentally lock away all of this aggravating information, ready to use it at a moment’s notice when I feel Christine Sinclair is not getting the attention she deserves. And unless CSA gets a large influx of money or FIFA overhauls their voting system for these awards, we’re unlikely to see a Canadian in the final three for some time. There’s a lack of appreciation and recognition for our players, coaches and achievements among media outside of Canada (heck, we struggle for decent coverage inside of Canada too) and from national teams/players beyond CONCACAF and top UEFA teams. It’s annoying, but as Canadian fans aren’t we used to our team being underestimated? Aren’t we used to underestimating them ourselves? Frankly, it’s a bad habit. One that we should break for 2017.