VANCOUVER â€” When the referee blew the final whistle on the careers of three Canadian women’s soccer icons, the message from Melissa Tancredi, Rhian Wilkinson and Marie-Eve Nault was clear â€” the torch is yours to carry from this point forward.
Canada picked up a 3-2 victory over Mexico in an international friendly on Saturday that celebrated the national team’s back-to-back Olympic bronze medals and also marked the end of the road for a trio that played 377 times for their country.
“They mean everything, they give everything,” Canadian head coach John Herdman said of Tancredi, Wilkinson and Nault. “Their whole adult life has been spent with this team. They don’t know anything different … and you only have to go into our locker-room to start to realize what they mean to each other.
“Each one of them has got something in their identity that Canadians can relate to, whether it’s the grit of Tancredi, the altruisticness of Marie-Eve or just that ‘true north’ of Rhian.”
All three players were joined by family members on the pitch for a ceremony following the game, with Tancredi’s grandparents surprising her after flying in from Ontario.
“So many emotions, but the first thing is proud that I’ve been able to call these three individuals teammates and friends,” said Canadian captain Christine Sinclair. “We’ve literally taken on the world together and shared heartbreaks and had our dreams come true in Olympic Games.
“It’s been quite the ride.”
The 35-year-old Tancredi, a powerful striker who scored 27 goals in 125 appearances, started on the bench before coming on as substitute in the 76th minute with Canada clinging to a 3-2 lead.
A member of the national team since 2004, Tancredi scored twice in Canada’s famous 2-1 victory over Germany in Brazil, the country’s first-ever win against the European powerhouse.
“It’s a bit overwhelming,” said Tancredi, who had tears in her eyes after Saturday’s game. “It was going to be an emotional day.”
A standout defender throughout her career, Wilkinson also started the game on the bench, but came on in the 57th minute to win her 181st cap. The 34-year-old made her debut for Canada in 2003.
Nault, meanwhile, started against Mexico for her 71st appearance. The 34-year-old didn’t play in Rio, but was an integral part at the 2012 Olympics after two defenders ahead of her on the depth chart were felled by injuries.
“We talked today about some of the things those women have stood for, and those things can’t leave our team,” said Herdman. “Someone in that room has to be ready to take on that sort of responsibility or we won’t see a podium again. It doesn’t matter how good the players are, how technically gifted they are.
“If they don’t have that spirit, that heart, if they don’t have the values and attitude that these women have, this team goes nowhere. This team has been built on their foundations.”
Janine Beckie scored twice in the first half, while Deanne Rose had the other goal for Canada. Nancy Antonio and Kaitlyn Johnson replied for the visitors.
Players from the 2016 bronze-medal winning Canadian squad were honoured before kickoff, while members of the 2012 team were given a rousing ovation at halftime.
Canada, ranked No. 4 in the world by FIFA, set a new women’s national team record in 2016 with 15 wins in a calendar year.
A snowstorm blanketed the Vancouver area Friday and into Saturday, but a crowd of 22,508 braved the inclement weather.
Canada had 19 of the 21 players from Rio at B.C. Place Stadium for the game â€” centre back Kadeisha Buchanan and fullback-midfielder Ashley Lawrence weren’t released by their French clubs â€” while seven other youngsters were sprinkled into the squad of 26.
The game against No. 26 Mexico was also Canada’s first at the venue since crashing out as hosts of the 2015 Women’s World Cup in a devastating quarter-final loss to England in front of more than 54,000 fans.
Herdman led a training camp in California last month as he begins preparations for 2019 World Cup and 2020 Olympics. Of the seven players not part of the Rio squad currently in the setup, five are teenagers.
“It’s been a heavy couple of days,” said Herdman. “All the players felt a little bit of excitement, but also that burden that they had a lot to carry going in that game to send those amazing people off the right way.
Canada opened the scoring in the 14th minute when Rose, who scored in the 2-1 bronze-medal victory over Brazil this summer, grabbed the ball in midfield before powering past a defender and beating Mexican goalkeeper Bianca Henninger.
Mexico responded two minutes later after Canada gave the ball away to Antonio, who fired a shot by Stephanie Labbe.
“It’s not much of a celebration if you don’t win the game,” said Sinclair. “Mexico made it difficult for us.”
The Canadians retook the lead in the 26th minute when Beckie jumped on a poor clearance and curled a low shot beyond Henninger’s reach.
Beckie, who scored three goals for Canada in Rio, then made it 3-1 in the 40th on a nicely taken penalty after Sinclair was brought down in Mexico’s 18-yard box.
Johnson got Mexico to within one in the 59th when she was left unmarked on a corner, but the hosts weren’t threatened much from there before the three retiring veterans waved a final goodbye.
“One of goals is to leave soccer in Canada in a better place than when we joined the team,” said Sinclair, who is 33. “The young ones coming through, you can see we’ve done that. We have 15 and 16 year olds with us that literally started playing soccer because of Rhian, Tanc and Nault.
“Their legacy lives on.”
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press