One of the most memorable Olympic moments in Canadian history came at the London 2012 Games, a goal that signified the grit, determination and heart of the Canadian women’s soccer team. And it wasn’t scored by Christine Sinclair.
It was scored by Diana Matheson, the 5-foot, steadfast midfielder, who always personified those very qualities on the pitch when wearing the Canadian badge.
That iconic 1-0 goal in the 93rd-minute goal against favoured France earned Canada its first of two Olympic bronze medals and helped heal a heartbroken nation after a devastating loss in the semifinals against the Americans.
“It was the defining moment of my career,” she said.
On Wednesday, Matheson announced her retirement after 15 years on the national team and over a dozen seasons as a professional footballer. A lingering foot injury ruled the 37-year-old native of Oakville, Ont., out of the Tokyo Olympics and she made peace that this was the right time to hang up the cleats.
“Everyone said play as long as you can so I think I did that, so no regrets. I literally played as long as I could. I can’t handle the load anymore, but I left it all on the field. I’m proud of that,” she said. “Personally, professionally, I’m ready to be at home and work on new things.
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“I’m in the best possible place I could be and yet I still know it’s going to be emotional and hard.”
Matheson is one of just three Canadians to have reached the 200-cap mark for the country (along with Sinclair and Sophie Schmidt) and with two Olympic bronze medals in three Olympics and three FIFA Women’s World Cup appearances, she is among the most-decorated players in the country’s history.
WATCH | Diana Matheson announced her retirment:
‘I broke the mould’
While Matheson never represented Canada internationally at the youth level, she caught the eye of then national team coach Even Pellerud in 2003.
Pellerud’s teams were often robust in size and played a more direct style of soccer rather than a possession-type of game.
“I broke the mould,” Matheson laughs, noting that Pellerud’s teams also had a signature defence-first intensity and a win the ball back at all costs mentality.
“I brought that, he liked that about me. He wasn’t necessarily bringing me in to be a creative playmaker at the time, but once they gave me a shot, I stuck around.”
And stuck around she did — for 206 international appearances as well as all the highs and lows of the program.
The lows included not qualifying for the 2004 Athens Olympics and finishing last at the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
But the highs greatly outnumbered those lows. Two Olympic bronze medals and qualifying for their first-ever Olympics in 2008 in Beijing.
The pinnacle of it all was London 2012, turning around that last-place finish a year earlier and ending up on the podium in the most striking of circumstances.
WATCH | Matheson’s winner secures bronze for Canada at 2012 Olympics:
Top of mind for Canadians was the controversial 4-3 loss to the Americans in extra time. A game that saw a hat trick performance by Sinclair and Canada holding a 3-2 lead in the 78th minute until a series of bizarre refereeing decisions led to the Americans tying the game at 3.
“People remember that Olympics for the U.S. game for sure. It was just a crazy good game of soccer — Christine’s hat trick, with the refereeing that you’ve never seen before or since and the devastation of that and the way Canada rallied behind us. And then the dramatics of the bronze-medal game, we just had all the drama. We didn’t just win a bronze medal we had the most dramatic, heartbreaking, celebratory Olympics. It was crazy that it happened that way. And we got to stand on the podium. It was a dream come true.”
For Matheson and players of her generation and beyond, the next dream is a professional women’s league in Canada. It’s something squarely on her radar as she enters the next phase of her life.
“That’s the next thing to do,” said Matheson, who played the bulk of her professional career with Team Strømmen in Norway’s Toppserien and in the NWSL in the United States.
“We have the player pool. We have the talent here. Canada Soccer has done such a good job of supporting our women’s national team over the years, our youth system is incredible. The next thing is we just have to build that professional landscape. We have to build somewhere for our women so that they don’t have to retire when they’re done university or so they don’t have to go play [abroad] … Canada is a place that can support a full professional league and that’s something I’m really excited to work on next.”
Matheson said there’s people in Canada who have already done the work, there’s a plan in place and there’s been interest from investors. On top of that, she believes the country could also support NWSL clubs.
“That’s some pretty low-hanging fruit,” she said. “We can get that up and going and that’s something Canada Soccer and Nick Bontis, the president, has said is a priority, so now that we’re getting out of COVID, everyone is getting back to playing soccer hopefully that’s something we see Nick and Canada Soccer really push in the next few years.”
Front office role in future?
And don’t be surprised if you see Matheson in some kind of front office role in the future.
“I definitely want to be a part of it,” she said, noting the post-soccer accomplishments of former teammates like Karina LeBlanc (head of CONCACAF for women), Rhian Wilkinson and Carmelina Moscato (international coaches) and Kaylyn Kyle (broadcasting) among others.
“I would love to help build a league. I would love to help run a professional club in Canada. I think the more women and diverse voices and former players and athletes we can get at the highest levels, the better for the sport. We’re motivated for the right reasons. We only want to see the game grow in Canada and succeed.”
WATCH | Matheson reflects on that goal against France in 2012:
While there won’t be any Matheson magic this summer in Tokyo, the veteran believes her team has the talent to win and as for what they need to do to chase a third-straight Olympic medal?
“The belief they can do it, which I think they have,” she said. “The difference between Canada at an average tournament and a great tournament is just putting the ball in the back of the net. So being lethal in front and if we do that, we can get to the top of the podium.”