Canada goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe left the field with tears in her eyes on Friday, waving to the thousands of football fans who stood and cheered as she officially closed her football career.
“It was emotional, it was exciting, all the emotions together. But what a great moment, to be able to do that in front of the Canadian people with all my friends and family there,” he said.
“I feel very lucky to have this opportunity. I know not all players get this opportunity, so I feel very lucky to celebrate this moment with everyone close to me and the country that has supported me so much.”
Labbe conceded no goals in 46 minutes of work as the Canadian women’s soccer team blanked Nigeria 2-0 in a friendly at BC Place.
Jessie Fleming opened the scoring in the 51st minute and Vanessa Gilles added to the home side’s lead with a goal in the 72nd minute.
Labbe came on just after half-time, greeting fellow goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan on the touchline with a hug.
“I just said, ‘This team is yours. Take over this team,” he said. “I will be his biggest fan as well as Erin (McLeod) and Sabrina (D’Angelo) and `the other guards that appear through the system.
“It’s an exciting time. It was easy for me to walk away knowing that the team was in good hands.”
The Canadian women were at SM as part of a celebratory tour to recognize the gold medal they won at the Tokyo Olympics last summer.
The match was the pinnacle of Labbe’s career, said Canadian head coach Bev Priestman.
“Everyone knows Steph’s contribution, especially, I think, at the height of his career in the summer. He came out on top, on his terms,” he said. “It’s going to be a huge gap in terms of what Steph brings to the team, not just on the pitch but off the pitch.”
Canada, ranked sixth in the world, played in red jerseys with each player’s name and number emblazoned on the back in gold, a nod to their medals.
Nigeria sits at No. 39 in the world rankings.
The home team were slow to start the game, perhaps because there was so much emotion involved, said Priestman.
The game improved in the second half and the coach thought his team had plenty of chances to add to the score.
“We can definitely score a few more goals,” he said. “We looked dangerous up front and that was the most important thing.”
Canada went 2-0 up in the 72nd minute following a Janine Beckie corner.
Jordyn Huitema controlled the ball, sending it to Gilles, who headed it past Nigeria goalkeeper Chiamaka Nnadozie.
It was the Angel City FC defender’s third goal for Canada, in his 18th national team appearance.
Sheridan made his biggest stop of the night in the 68th minute, diving to send a blast from Oyedupe Payne just wide of the post.
Deanne Rose set up the game’s first goal, sending the ball to Fleming at the top of the six-yard box in the 51st minute. The Chelsea midfielder fired a sharp angle shot that bounced high over the shoulder of goalkeeper Tochukwu Oluehi.
Oluehi was replaced at the net by Nnadozie in the 70th minute after appearing to be suffering from an injury.
His goal was Fleming’s 16th for Canada, coming in his 99th national team appearance.
The second half started with an emotional moment when Sheridan came on for Labbe.
The veteran keeper saluted the standing and cheering crowd – including all of his friends and family, many of whom wore his signature pink jersey and headband – before embracing his replacement on the touchline.
Tears streamed down Labbe’s face as he hugged Priestman, along with the rest of the Canadian training staff and his teammates on the touchline.
The 35-year-old originally from Stony Plain, Alta., announced his retirement in January and has played his last professional game for Paris-Saint Germain.
The hosts controlled most of the action in the first half but Labbe was forced into action in the 28th minute.
Rasheedat Ajibade broke through the Canadian defense and sent a rocket flying over the top of the box but Labbe made a fingertip save and kept the score at 0-0.
Canada had their prime chance in the 19th minute when Beckie crossed for Christine Sinclair in the box. The captain headed in and sent a shot into Oluehi’s midsection from outside the six-yard box.
The two sides will meet again for the second leg in the BC leg of Monday’s celebratory tour in Langford, BC
Canada came into Friday’s game knowing Nigeria would present a tough test, Priestman said.
“I think they made themselves proud and it will be a tough game, the next game, no doubt about it,” he said.
Nigeria head coach Randy Waldrum was impressed with his team, especially considering some of the team’s usual starters were unable to come to Canada due to visa issues.
“Girls feel now that they can play with anyone in the world,” she said. “But we’re also smart enough to realize that there are some areas we need to improve before we fit into that elite category.”
Sinclair was honored in the pre-match ceremony for breaking the international goalscoring record when he hit his 185th goal in January 2019.
The much-delayed celebration saw videos of some of Sinclair’s highlights shown on the big screen before the 38-year-old from Burnaby, BC, and his two nephews took to the pitch where he received a commemorative print and a standing ovation from the hometown crowd.
“The fans are amazing,” said Sinclair. “The energy they give us, there’s no better feeling than playing at home.”
Loud cheers filled the stadium as the Canadian players walked off the pitch before kickoff. The players, with gold medals slung around their necks, clapped and waved at the cheering crowd before being awarded their Olympic championship rings.
Friday marked the first time the Canadian and Nigerian women’s teams faced each other since April 2019 when Canada took a 2-1 decision in a friendly in Spain.
Canada played its first match at BC Place since November 2017 when the women’s team faced America in a 1-1 draw.
NOTE: Two Nigerian players were sent off on stretchers. Ebi Onome left the game in the 59th minute and Grace Kanu in the 80th â€¦ A ceremony was held after the game to celebrate Labbe â€ All 22 players who won gold for Canada in Tokyo are currently with the women’s team, plus seven Young Priestman hopes to be included in the upcoming lineup.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on April 8, 2022.
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