When the Women’s World Cup kicked off in Edmonton on Saturday, 53,000 fans packed Commonwealth Stadium to cheer on the host team against China.
It’s a far cry from 30 years ago, when the first Canadian women’s national team was assembled in Victoria, before there was a Women’s World Cup and before women’s soccer was part of the Olympics.
“There wasn’t a lot of support. We had to pay to play,” said Revelstoke’s Janet Lemieux, who was the sweeper on that first team. “We had to take time off work and do all kinds of things. We had to play in men’s uniform.”
Lemieux was playing for a club team in Edmonton that dominated the national scene, winning five championships in a row, when the call went out to put together a national team in 1986.
The best female players gathered for tryouts in Winnipeg and were put through gruelling tests, playing three times a day. In the end, Lemieux was one of about two dozen women who made the squad. The team included Charmaine Hooper, who would go on to become Canada’s first female soccer star.
Last weekend, they gathered for a reunion prior to the start of the World Cup.
For Lemieux, it was the first time since 1987 that she saw many of those players; her international career was cut short by a devastating leg injury at a tournament in Taiwan.
There isn’t a lot of information online about that early team, but Lemieux does have a profile page on the Canada Soccer website. Her match statistics show that she played in six games. The first two were at a tournament in Minnesota in 1986. She remembers beating the United States 2-1 in their first game. There, she had to defend against a teenage Mia Hamm, who would go on to become one of the sports biggest stars.
PHOTO: The 1987 Canadian women’s national soccer team. Janet Lemieux is front-row centre, wearing red track pants. Photo by Canada Soccer.
In 1987 they played in Minnesota again, before going to Taiwan in December, where they played in front of big crowds. It was there that Lemieux experienced her career-ending injury.
It was a different time back then, with nowhere near the support for the women’s program there is now. Players were given training regimens and expected to follow them, but they didn’t have the support of a team of trainers and experts like today. “We used to play against the boys because it was hard to find women’s teams that were competitive enough,” she said.
Lemieux thinks the hype of the Women’s World Cup is fantastic.
“I think women should be getting the same support as the men,” she said. “I think it’s starting to approach that but it was very grim at the beginning. I’m glad to see some women getting attention because they’re very competitive.”