This, folks, was the moment.
The long-awaited moment, occasionally believed to be nothing more than a fairy tale, at which Canadian soccer (not the sport of soccer, not the global game, but Canadian soccer) would fully and irrevocably break into the mainstream sporting consciousness from coast to coast. On this Olympic stage, this team was able to capture the hearts and minds of Canadian sports fans like no one could have imagined possible.
Canada's bronze-medal victory on Thursday morning was dramatic, unexpected, thrilling and -- if we're being honest -- horribly, horribly cruel to France, who controlled the vast majority of the game. But if it's been said once, it's been said a million times: They don't ask how, they ask how many. Canada 1, France 0 -- and the first Olympic medal in soccer for a Canadian team since 1904.
While Christine Sinclair and Desiree Scott have been catapulted into Canadian sporting fame with their performances in this tournament, it's fitting that Diana Matheson -- a long-serving veteran whose contributions to the team for the past 10 years have made much of their success possible -- was the ultimate hero on this triumphant day.
But Matheson's career-defining moment was, by far, not the only storyline we saw play out over this preposterous roller coaster of a two-week span for Big Red...
Tancredi's tournament of a lifetime. Forget about her physical play and supposed shenanigans in the semifinal; early in the tournament, when Sinclair was seemingly at less than 100%, Tancredi found her clinical touch and potted four goals to push Canada into the knockout round. Oh, and she threw in a few quality assists along the way, just for good measure. She did make a comment suggesting that this would be her final big tournament for Canada; let's hope that's not the case, but if it is, she's certainly going out on a high note.
Sinclair's performance of a lifetime. Not much else needs to be said here, huh? The captain -- as the true superstars do -- stepped up on the grandest stage with her hat trick against the USA that nearly dragged Big Red into the gold-medal game. She may have just earned herself a stroll around the Olympic Stadium with the Canadian flag for it.
Desiree Scott is here. In fact, she's everywhere. Eighteen months ago, Scott was a fringe player for the national team. Now, with her unreal awareness and defensive instincts, she's fully earned her "Destroyer" nickname, for all of Canada to see. And, of course, it was her goal-line clearance against France that made Matheson's late-game heroics possible.
The goalkeeping controversy. Some folks were surprised to see Erin McLeod get the start against Japan; others were surprised to see her then get the start against Sweden. And the surprise continued coming in when she got then nod against Great Britain in the quarterfinals. While she's a stalwart of the national team, some questionable decisions in the early games left some fans clamouring for a return of erstwhile #1 Karina LeBlanc (and wondering whether KK was, in fact, hurt). But despite the controversy and despite the uncertainty, McLeod stepped up when it mattered most, keeping a clean sheet with a medal on the line.
The defensive crisis. Or was it? It's not often that a team loses not one, not two, but three central defenders over the course of a tournament, and still go on to have success. But Canada weathered the storm of in-game injuries to Candace Chapman and Robyn Gayle and a pre-tournament knock to Emily Zurrer with massive contributions from the patchwork CB duo of Carmelina Moscato and Lauren Sesselmann.
John Herdman: Magic maker. It seems so long ago now that Canada finished dead last at the Women's World Cup -- but it really was just one year ago. Seriously, check the calendar. Head coach John Herdman, in the intervening time, brought the team a gold at the Pan Am Games, a silver at the Cyprus Cup and a bronze at the Olympics. He promised the team would be mentally prepared for London 2012: they delivered. He promised the team would shoot for the podium: they delivered. Working with essentially the same roster as the team had at WWC2011 (the biggest changes being Scott's increased role and Sesselmann joining the team), he's been able to craft a truly remarkable turnaround that will likely have other countries sniffing around for his services. Let's hope they're unsuccessful in that pursuit.
French redemption. Let's be real. France deserved to win that game. By a wide margin. Even the most rose-coloured-glasses-wearing Canada fan has to concede that much. But guess what? They didn't. The soccer gods giveth and the soccer gods taketh away -- on this day, they gaveth Canada a dramatic victory, and tooketh away the baggage of the perception that Canada couldn't win big games against higher-ranked teams. Specifically, this wipes clean the bitter taste left in Canadian mouths after the 4-0 loss at Germany 2011, and a 2-0 loss in the final of this year's Cyprus Cup.
The legacy for 2015. Said Matheson after the bronze-medal victory: "We came in wanting to leave a legacy for Canadian soccer, and I think we did that heading into 2015." Indeed. The victory couldn't have come at a better time, in terms of building interest and momentum for the Women's World Cup we'll be hosting in three years' time. And while the fate of the program after veterans such as Sinclair and Matheson retire is in doubt, I'm guessing that this medal, this moment, has sparked inspiration in a whole new generation of young Canadian players.
Matheson's goal is the moment that will be replayed ad nauseam -- most likely with I Believe blaring in the background -- for days, weeks, maybe years to come. But it was just the icing on the cake. This moment was built, and earned, by not just the hard work and dedication of all the players in this tournament, but by the years of fighting the under-appreciated and largely unnoticed fight by this team and those that support them.
Can this team, and Canadian soccer as a whole, capitalize upon this achievement? Is this a watershed moment for the game in this country, or a mere blip on the radar of generalized disappointment? It'll take hard work to ensure that it's the former, rather than the latter, to be sure. And questions still remain about many aspects of the program.
But you know what, for today, those questions don't matter. Let's think about them tomorrow. For now, we can revel in the near-unspeakable reality that Canada has won an Olympic medal in soccer.
Perhaps Matheson's goal doesn't instantly join the pantheon of "where were you?" goals in Canadian sports history -- Henderson, Crosby, et. al. -- but years from now, maybe it will be regarded in exactly the same way. Maybe one day, when soccer occupies a regular spot near the forefront of the Canadian sporting consciousness, we'll be telling our kids and grandkids about what we were doing when Matheson, against the run of play, found the back of the net ("what's a TV, grandpa?").
But again, let's worry about that later. For now, we'll enjoy where we are: In the moment.