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For 31-year-old Whitecaps captain Andrea Neil, career, education and relationship sacrifices are the price of playing. Photo by Dan Toulgoet.

Girls Got Game

By Bob Mackin-contributing writer

For a 20-year-old shouldering the hopes and dreams of Canadian soccer fans, Christine Sinclair is surprisingly relaxed. She pauses to sip from a bottle of water in a North Burnaby cafe, then ponders Saturday's kickoff of the FIFA Women's World Cup in Columbus, Ohio against number-three ranked Germany.

"We've played Germany before, two years ago when our program was just starting to build and we got beaten pretty badly," she says, recalling the 7-1 and 3-0 losses in Germany. "I like to think our team has improved a lot since then. We have the talent, now we have the opportunity to show the world what we can do."

Canada's national women's soccer team once struggled for recognition and results. When it began in 1986, games were few and far between. Players even paid to play for their country. Now Canada's women are ranked 12th in the world and offer this country its best opportunity for success on soccer's world stage. It's a far cry from Canada's lacklustre senior men's team, which rarely plays on home soil, lacks offense and is ranked a dismal 78th-a dozen spots worse than the national team of war-ravaged Iraq.

Canada didn't qualify for the first Women's World Cup in China 12 years ago and was knocked out of the first round with a tie and two losses in both Sweden (1995) and the U.S. (1999). A single victory in the 16-team, Sept. 20 to Oct. 12 tournament would be a major accomplishment. But the team has more ambitious goals. Like winning the championship.

It'll need to finish first or second in Group C with Germany, Argentina (Sept. 24) and Japan (Sept. 27) and then win two consecutive playoff matches to play in the Oct. 12 final in Carson, Calif. No easy task, but Sinclair knows it's possible.

"Look at our attacking," Sinclair says. "We can score goals, we have a number of players who can do it. I wouldn't want to play against us. Defensively, we take no prisoners. We hurt people, to put it mildly."

For dreams to become reality, the Burnaby-native knows she'll need to be at the top of her game.

Vancouver soccer fans saw little of Sinclair this summer. She skipped the Whitecaps W-League season, citing illness, injury and fatigue. Her wisdom teeth were removed in July, and in August, she mourned the death of Clive Charles, her University of Portland coach and mentor.

Perhaps it was the price of success. The fearless five-foot-nine striker nicknamed "Sinky" led the 2002 FIFA Women's Under-19 World Championship tournament with 10 goals in Canada's six games and was named most valuable player. The victorious Americans held her off the scoreboard in the final in Edmonton, but Canadian soccer was still a winner. More than 47,000 people were in Commonwealth Stadium and Sportsnet counted a record 900,000 viewers.

"The support that poured out for us, from one coast of the country to the other, was unbelievable," she says. "To finish second was disappointing, but to realize you're the second best team in the world was nice."

When she returned for her sophomore year at the University of Portland, she guided the Pilots to their first NCAA national title. Her 15th playoff goal in two seasons-the overtime championship winner-tied American superstar Mia Hamm's four-year college record. Her 76 goals in 56 club, college and international games during 2002 garnered FIFA's recognition of her as the world's sixth-best female player of the year.

Soccer may be in her genes. Uncles Brian and Bruce Gant played professionally in the North American Soccer League before Sinclair was born. She started kicking the ball around parents Bill and Sandra Sinclair's home at age four, joined B.C.'s Under-14 All-Stars when she was 11, and debuted with the senior national team at just 16. The Burnaby South secondary graduate has a scholarship and dreams of playing professionally, despite Monday's announced closure of the financially ailing Women's United Soccer Association. This fall, the Life Sciences major has put her studies on hold so she can lead Canada's attack in the Women's World Cup.

"I remember going down to Portland to watch the Women's World Cup [in 1999] and thinking it would be pretty cool to play in one myself, not knowing that it was going to happen four years later. I'm loving every minute of it. I'm getting my education paid for. Hopefully after school I have a career ahead of me [in soccer]. It's something I could never have dreamed of 10 years ago. It's reality now."

Scholarships, professional contracts and a world championship never crossed Geri Donnelly's mind when she was picked to play for Canada's fledgling women's national team in 1986. To wear the maple leaf and play the highest level of soccer was all that mattered.

She played 72 times during a 13-year career as a midfielder, beginning July 9, 1986 when she scored Canada's first two international goals against the United States in a suburban Minneapolis park. She was among a Canadian women's all-star team assembled at a Winnipeg tournament and sent south on a 20-hour bus ride to meet the Americans.

"We didn't even know there was a national team," says Donnelly, who also played basketball and studied at Simon Fraser University. "We were told that if there was going to be a national women's program, we had to be successful. We had three days training together, which was intense training.

We were quite scared and didn't know what to expect."

The game was but a rumour north of the border where Canada's men's team had returned from its only appearance at a World Cup in Mexico-without even scoring a goal.

The women players had to train on their own, buy their own boots-up to four pairs a year-and even pay for airfare to tournaments. The Port Moody Soccer Club, Rotary Club and Safeway raised $1,500 to send Donnelly on a 1987 national team tour of Taiwan.

"We didn't really have a World Cup to look forward to at that time, we just wanted to play at the highest level we could. We struggled with our training, most of us trained individually by ourselves, in the pouring rain or the middle of the night. That's what we did, that was our life."

Donnelly, 37, retired after captaining Canada in the 1999 Women's World Cup. She played for the Vancouver Angels and Vancouver Breakers in the W-League for two seasons, and continues to play recreationally for Surrey United.

A physical education teacher in Surrey, Donnelly also runs a girls-only soccer school. Co-ed camps don't help girls, she says because aggressive boys naturally dominate the ball.

That she found out first-hand, as the only girl who battled for the ball with boys during pick-up games in her native London, England. Things were different when she was eight years old and living in Port Moody after her parents immigrated. There was even a team just for girls.

England is where the first-known organized women's team flourished despite its conservative, male-only soccer establishment.

Dick, Kerr Ladies Football Club began at a Preston factory during World War I and lasted almost half a century. Wartime fundraisers at the home fields of Liverpool and Manchester United drew sellout crowds and the ire of the English Football Association. In 1921, the FA banned Dick, Kerr from England's top stadiums because "football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged."

The team continued to play on smaller, non-FA fields and even sailed across the Atlantic for opposition in 1922. There was no welcome mat in Canada. The Dominion Football Association echoed the English FA stance and wouldn't let the women play domestic teams in this country. Dick, Kerr looked south to the United States, but couldn't find any women to challenge. The team ended up winning three times and tying three times on an eight-game tour against men's teams.

During the 1920s, women's soccer games were documented in Hamilton, Ont., Connecticut, New York and California-even in Alberta's Crowsnest Pass, where teams formed on marital status: married women versus single women. Splitting teams along those lines wasn't unusual, says Ann Hall, author of The Girl and the Game: A History of Women's Sport in Canada. "They were novelty teams more than anything. There was no league."

Unlike softball, basketball and ice hockey, women weren't encouraged to play soccer in communities, schools or universities.

"The key issue was women had to take control of their own sports," Hall says. "They had no interest, as far as I could see, with soccer."

Hall, professor emeritus of physical education at the University of Alberta, says two forces stimulated growth in women's soccer on opposite sides of the border in the 1970s. In the U.S., the federal Title IX legislation mandated funding equity for male and female athletes in 1972. In Canada, sons and daughters of cost-conscious baby boomers were turning to soccer in droves as an alternative to ice hockey.

Initially, girls had to play on boys' teams until "soccer took a very intelligent approach and they clearly and carefully established leagues for girls," she says.

In 1973, there were only three girls soccer clubs across British Columbia. By 1980, there were 317 playing under the B.C. Girls Soccer Association. In 2002, there were more than 307,000 women and girls playing nationally-that's 39 per cent of Canada's 789,000-plus players. In B.C., 42,000 female players were registered. For every female playing hockey-the official national winter sport-there are five others playing soccer.

Like the Americans' 1999 Women's World Cup victory at home in front of 90,000 fans at Pasadena's Rose Bowl, the 2002 FIFA Under-19 Women's World Championship final in Edmonton was a landmark event in Canadian soccer.

"I was just astounded when I walked into Commonwealth Stadium in 2002 for the women's U-19 final," Hall says "I never believed all these years I would see 47,000 people screaming at a bunch of teenagers playing girls soccer."

The game, however, isn't without its problems.

Hall says women are still in the minority when it comes to coaching, officiating and administration. At the top level, only two of the CSA's 20 directors are women: Surrey's Laurel Pokoyski and Coquitlam's Leeta Sokalski. Canadian universities can't compete with deep-pocketed American colleges and universities, so elite teenage players look across the border to further their skills and education. The best players who found jobs in WUSA may have to look abroad to Europe or Asia after the demise of the world's top women's soccer league. Otherwise, players can jockey for spots on Ottawa, Toronto or Vancouver's teams in the W-League, the semi-pro second division. Few opportunities exist to make a living in the game when playing days are over.

Hall fears the brain drain and glass ceiling could harm or halt the game's growth.

"The sport has become, to a certain extent, 'Canadianized.' But there's still a strong European tradition in the sport. Many of the people involved in the sport come from these kinds of backgrounds where these issues aren't important."

Worries about her post-soccer career led North Vancouver's Silvana Burtini to trade in the light blue uniform of WUSA's Carolina Courage for the dark blue of "Vancouver's finest."

Now a Vancouver cop, Burtini scored the Courage's first goal when WUSA was born in 2001. She earned $35,000 U.S. in her first professional season, but came home to examine her career options. She had a longstanding interest in policing, so she signed up for police academy and retired from WUSA.

Burtini got her Vancouver Police badge last fall, after Canada qualified for the Women's World Cup. She's a rookie of a different sort, defending turf on the Downtown Eastside.

The 34-year-old grew up in Williams Lake playing with boys because there weren't any girls' teams to join until she was 11. It helped her develop skills she may not have otherwise. She went from the B.C. under-18 all-star team to the national team in July 1987 and has been part of the player pool every year except 1996. She drew worldwide attention in 1998 with eight first half goals in a regional Women's World Cup qualifier against Puerto Rico. And she wasn't fully recovered from a bout with chronic fatigue.

Burtini, now a constable with the district two patrol squad, has deftly juggled work with play.

She reported for a mid-August national team training camp in Vancouver at 9:30 a.m. daily after working a 6 p.m. to 3 a.m. shift. One night's caseload involved breaking up a fight, arresting an intoxicated male and dealing with two female victims of a knifepoint robbery. Burtini was a witness testifying in an impaired driving court case, just hours before she started in Canada's Sept. 4 friendly against Mexico at Swangard Stadium.

"It's been hard to bond with the team and keep the coach happy," she says. "I feel confident I can play any position on the field. I just want to be on the field playing and helping out any way I can."

Policing and playing are both high-pressure, long-hours commitments where teamwork and meshing with different personalities are the keys to success, she says.

When she's not with the national team, she plays with the Vancouver Police women's team. She also trains with the Wesburn under-18 men's team coached by husband Metro Gerela, a top soccer prospect in the 1960s who played pro football in the NFL and CFL.

"When my shots go sailing over the crossbar, you'll know why," she jokes.

Burtini was named to the Women's World Cup roster Sept. 8 and looks forward to her third and final appearance in the tournament. She's hoping to be off the beat until after mid-October's final.

Unlike Burtini, Andrea Neil never tried her chances south of the border in WUSA. She did, however, find a happy medium. The 31-year-old Whitecaps captain and 12-year national team veteran makes a living coaching at Richmond's Total Soccer Systems private soccer school. She's fortunate to have a sympathetic boss, national team scout Bob Birarda. With his blessing, Neil has spent much of the year on the road with the national team.

Neil credits head coach Even Pellerud with rejuvenating both the national team and her career.

Pellerud, coach of Norway's 1995 championship-winning team, was hired to coach Canada after the 1999 Women's World Cup. He successfully lobbied the Canadian Soccer Association to let him run the team independent of the men's program and he gained the necessary support for monthly training camps and international friendlies. The team is ready for the Women's World Cup after winning 10 of this year's 15 exhibition matches.

"The years are becoming better and better at a time I thought I'd be getting near retirement," Neil says. "I thought after the World Cup in 1999 that would be pretty much it for me. When you're having fun and enjoying what you do, the product is better on the field."

Neil grew up playing youth soccer in Kerrisdale and at Prince of Wales secondary, but never fancied herself a world-class player. Instead, badminton was her favourite game. She didn't know Canada even had a national women's soccer program until coaches told her she had star potential. She went with their advice and joined the University of B.C. Thunderbirds women's team and later the national team in 1991.

"Now you get five and six-year-olds who dream of becoming soccer players. For me I happened upon it almost by accident."

It hasn't come without career, education and relationship sacrifices. For now, all that matters is the Women's World Cup.

"I would've liked to go to school longer than my general degree at university; perhaps a lot of my school friends now are married and with kids and have those responsibilities," she says. "I've taken a leave of absence from my job, so income isn't as readily available. But, for me this is the last time in my lifetime I'll be able to do this. I've got the rest of my life to fulfill those other dreams."

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