Canada’s manager, Bev Priestman, said the team’s historic victory against USA was “absolutely” the best moment of her career and that her players “have got to believe we can do something really really special” in the final, where they face Sweden.
“We were clear we wanted to change the colour of the medal and we knew it was a massive task,” said Priestman, who was most recently assistant to Phil Neville with England but has managed Canada youth teams. “For the programme it sets us up nicely to be able to keep pushing forward but we’re going into this final to get a gold medal.”
A penalty awarded by VAR and converted by Chelsea’s Jessie Fleming earned Canada a place in the final and a first win against USA in 20 years.
In a humid but clouded-over Kashima Stadium, USA looked sluggish, the world champions’ passing was sloppy and they struggled to put their stamp on the first half. Canada’s Nichelle Prince and Janine Beckie (of Houston Dash and Manchester City respectively) were the most threatening players.
The USA manager, Vlakto Andonovski, said he did not know why the team had struggled in this tournament and that they were “going to have to go back and dig a little deeper and find out why and what it is that caused us to look the way we did
The forward Megan Rapinoe deflected attention on to the players and away from the under-fire manager, whose decisions raised eyebrows at each stage of the Olympics. “If I could just say something,” she said after Andonovski had finished. “I just think the players have a lot to look at ourselves about. We need to look at ourselves and need to perform better. Period.
“We don’t have the juice because the ball’s bouncing off our shins and we’re not finding open passes and we’re not doing the simple things. We can deep dive into analysing and I know we will but at the end of the day there’s all the prep you can do, there’s all the analysing and the tactics and then there’s the everything else and you can’t put a name on the everything else – it’s just the getting it done from players, from all of us, I think.”
The USA team were dealt a big blow shortly before the half-hour. Alyssa Naeher, who saved two penalties in the quarter-final shootout against the Netherlands to pull her further out of the shadow left by Hope Solo, landed awkwardly after colliding with Julie Ertz, jarring a leg and crumpling in pain. After a lengthy stoppage the goalkeeper played on but after a goal-kick she winced, pulled up and waved to the bench for the Portland Thorns keeper Adrianna Franch, who had only six caps, to replace her.
Much of the buildup had drawn on the Old Trafford meeting of these two sides at the same stage in 2012. However in Kashima, an industrial city on the coast to the east of Tokyo, the Olympic rematch offered some of the physicality of that battle but little of the flair. Six members of the USA team that won gold in 2012 (with Christen Press an alternate for the London Games) were in the squad here. Four of the Canada squad were involved in their 2012 bronze-medal campaign.
“There’s some veterans on that team that still feel that hurt and I’m delighted for those players,” said Priestman. “The likes of Christine Sinclair get to go to an Olympic final.”
The arrival on the hour of the double Olympic champion Carli Lloyd and Rapinoe was followed by the first meaningful attempts on the Canada goal. First, a curling Lloyd strike was pushed over by Stephanie Labbé, then Labbé saved Ertz’s point-blank header from a Rapinoe corner.
The Canada substitute Deanne Rose, who made a more understated entrance alongside Lloyd and Rapinoe, proved the difference. Bursting in front of Tierna Davidson, she stretched and nipped the ball away from the defender. The slightest pressure from Davidson was enough for Rose to go to the ground and after consulting VAR the referee awarded a penalty. Then Sinclair, the leading all-time international goalscorer, picked up the ball and handed it to Fleming and the youngster fired past Franch to give Canada the lead in the 74th minute.
What was going through the head of the 23-year-old Fleming? “Just believing in myself, having confidence in myself,” she said. “I took a couple of deep breaths and, I don’t know, just trusted in myself. It’s just one kick.
“Playing sport and being on this team has changed my life; it’s given me my best friends, it’s helped me grow as a person, it brings you these very special moments that you get to celebrate with your best friends and I think it teaches you so much. Watching 2012 had such a big effect on me and I hope we can have the same effect on some girls, especially in London, Ontario, my hometown.”