Dramatic penalty kicks send Canada's women's soccer team to Olympic semifinals


Team Canada celebrates after a thrilling women's soccer quarter-final win over Brazil in penalty kicks. © Koki Nagahama/Getty Images

Canada's women's soccer team is off to the Olympic semifinals after a thrilling win over Brazil in penalty kicks on Friday in Tokyo.


Goalkeeper Stephanie Labbé came up huge with a crucial save on Brazil's Rafaelle on the final penalty kick, after Vanessa Gilles scored on Canada's fifth kick, to send the defending Olympic bronze medallists back into the medal rounds.


After 120 minutes without a goal, Canada's Christine Sinclair won the coin toss and elected for Canada to kick first. Sinclair took the first shot, but was denied by a diving Barbara, giving Brazil the early advantage.


Brazil kept the pressure on Canada, finding the back of the net on its first three kicks by Marta, Dabinha and Erika.


But Canada kept pace with a string of goals from Jessie Fleming, Ashley Lawrence and Adriana Leon — who had only come into the game in the 104th minute to replace Janine Beckie.


The turning point came with Labbé's first save, a diving stop on Andressa to take the edge away from Brazil. Then, a clutch goal from Gilles put the pressure back on the Brazilians, setting up Labbé to play the hero with her second save of the shootout, giving Canada the 4-3 win in penalties.

 Canada's Stephanie Labbé stopped Brazil's final penalty kick by Rafaelle to send Canada into the medal rounds in Tokyo. 
 © Koki Nagahama/Getty Images

"I honestly just don't have many words right now. The excitement level is as high as it can be," said Labbé, who minutes before the shootout was labouring after crashing hard to the turf while jumping for a ball in the box and having her legs taken out from under her by Brazil's Debinha.


"I think just in the moment it was about trusting myself, trusting my instincts and giving myself a chance to make the save. I didn't want to go too early and I just wanted to be in a position where I could use my power and make that save."


Gilles said Canada has been practising penalty kicks for months, preparing for the inevitability of an Olympic shootout.


"Honestly, you play your own luck and we've practised for this eventuality for about a month now, so I had no doubt that we were going to make it through," said the 25-year-old, who only picked up soccer when she was 16.


"For me, hard work gets you to your dreams. And that's been the case for me right now. I never dreamed I would be here. I just kept working and working and working for my own self and to one day maybe be here. So this is a surreal moment for me obviously."


'What a great Canadian she is'

Sinclair, who took an inadvertent friendly fire knee to head on a corner kick in the 12th minute, pressed on for the 120-minute match despite receiving medical attention on the play.


Her miss in penalty kicks, uncharacteristic as it may be for the international all-time scoring leader, served as a rallying point for the Canadians in the final rounds of the shootout.

 Canada's Christine Sinclair and Marta of Brazil after the match.
 © Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters

"We've been working for her. She's led this team through so many medals and so many great moments. And I think it was a great moment for us to step up and be there for her," Gilles said.

Head coach Bev Priestman said she thinks Sinclair has carried the team for a long time.


"For her to miss that penalty and the team step up ... to take a knock so early and push through, and do that amount of minutes and play really, really well, listen, what a great Canadian she is," said Priestman.


"I'm just so, so proud. What a great Canadian moment. I think [they're a] resilient group. They pushed, they pushed, but we didn't come here to make the semifinal. We came here to go home with a medal, and that's the next task."