Thorns FC

A matter of legacy: Christine Sinclair has defined greatness in her sport


PORTLAND, Ore. — On January 29, 2020, Christine Sinclair cemented her place among her sport's greatest. She'd earned that place long before.

But one year ago, the world truly took notice. With her 23rd-minute goal against St. Kitts and Nevis, Canada’s captain passed Abby Wambach, claimed a record long-held by Mia Hamm, and became the greatest scorer in international soccer history. Since then, the world has been catching up, but with that 185th international goal, Sinclair gained more access to a conversation she should be defining: Is she the greatest of all time?

The whys and how comes of that conversation are too many for this post. They’re also too complex. This space is more about today, today’s honor, and the fact Sinclair is finally getting the attention she deserves. Honored by FIFA during a gala in Zurich, Sinclair was recognized before the soccer world for the pedestal she’s claimed - one that stands next to Cristiano Ronaldo’s, the men’s game’s top scorer, yet slightly above for her total. Sinclair now has 188 goals. Ronaldo has 115.

“Throughout my career, I have been fortunate to experience many successes,” Sinclair shared in a Portland Thorns FC’s statement, “from winning trophies internationally and at club level and accepting individual awards. What matters are all the moments that I have shared and the connections that I have made.

“Being the first female to win this award is an incredible honor,” she said. “I hope it inspires young girls around the world to chase their dreams and lets them know that anything is possible.”

Increasingly, that perspective has become part of Sinclair’s legacy. If you ask her about her achievements with Canada, she’ll note the gold medal and the new levels the program has reached during her 22 years as a senior international. But she’ll also talk about the generation that’s arrived, and how players like Lyon’s Kadeisha Buchanan, Paris Saint-Germain's Ashley Lawrence, and Chelsea’s Jesse Fleming represent a new level for the program. She’ll talk about an environment in her home country that’s set to grow the game even more, with players like PSG’s Jordyn Huitema representing the next surge of Canadian talent. She’ll talk about what the inspiration has led to, not what the inspiration was.

It may be reductive to say that goals are inspirational — it feeds into a primacy of goals that overshadows other parts of the game — but there’s an undeniable passion that blooms from that end result. We know how hard it is to score goals, let alone 188 of them. The relief, the accomplishment, the glory – it's a feeling that may be unmatched by another moment in sport. Yet Sinclair has been experiencing those moments at the highest levels since she was 16 years old. She scored her first senior-level goal for Canada in March 2000; a first as a professional in 2009. For over two decades, she has produced at the peak of her sport, amassing a resume that may be unparalleled.

“To say I’m proud of Christine is an understatement,” Thorns general manager Karina LeBlanc said in the team’s announcement. For 16years, she was a teammate of Sinclair’s on the Canadian national team.

“[Sinclair] continues to make her mark,” LeBlanc said, “and I am happy that the football world recognizes her for the greatness we have always seen in her.”

Goalscoring is only one part of that greatness. Sinclair has shown as much over her last few seasons as a Thorn, forgoing her natural striker’s role for a place in attacking midfield. On rare occasions, she’s even dropped deeper, into a central role. She’s not just a goalscorer. She’s a soccer player, an all-around one, and although she can be valued without dwelling on goals, her scoring gives her access to the ultimate conversation.

Nothing we can say here will answer whether she's women's soccer's greatest, and there’s no single opinion that should convince anyone. Ultimately, it’s not even that important. The more important thing is the respect that comes with consideration. Sinclair is undoubtedly worthy of this conversation, and she has been for some time. But since there is no settling any greatest-ever debates, having a place in the discussion is the pinnacle. Nobody can deny her place among the game's elite, and within that group, nobody has done more to cement their spot.

“There are not enough honors and awards in the world for Christine Sinclair ...,” Merritt Paulson, owner of the Thorns for Sinclair’s nine seasons in the National Women’s Soccer League, said in his club’s statement. “There never has been a more unassuming superstar. It is a privilege to call her a Thorn, and we are blessed to have her at this club.”

Today, FIFA got in on some of that privilege: the privilege of being connected to Sinclair’s legacy. She authored it herself, but when it comes to giving that legacy its due, Paulson has a responsibility, as does LeBlanc. I share that responsibility, and if you’re at all involved in the women’s soccer world — from casual conversations in bars and living rooms, to your tweets, posts and stories — you share in that responsibility, too. So much of how greatness is measured in sports is about how athletes were perceived in their moment.

In that sense, history isn’t just about hindsight. It’s about the artifacts that capture moments, and for too long, there have been too few moments devoted to Sinclair’s greatness. Now’s the time to set history right. It’s time to ensure those who’ll never see Sinclair play know how much she gave to the sport.

She is as good as we’ve ever seen, and she’s been at this level for years. She has four first-division club titles, two college championships, a gold medal, three Olympic honors and, as of today, the full recognition of the soccer world. She has the respect of those who play the game, and as of one year ago, she has her sport’s most famous mark.

She has become a reason for young players to chase their dreams and, to continue echoing Sinclair’s words, proof that anything is possible. Between Portland, Canada, and the world, she has created a legacy that’s reframed legacies in her sport. She’s taken the game to a new level.

“She is a truly humble human being, a great team leader, a phenomenal player,” LeBlanc said, “and most importantly an incredible person whose legacy has already made a long-lasting impact in Portland.”