Canadian goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe left the field with tears in her eyes on Friday, waving to thousands of soccer fans in Vancouver who stood and cheered as she officially closed out her soccer career.
“It was emotional, it was exciting, all the emotions together. But what a moment, to be able to do that in front of a Canadian crowd with all my friends and family there,” she said.
“I feel very fortunate that I’ve had this opportunity. I know not all players get this chance, so I feel very fortunate to celebrate this moment with everyone that’s close to me and the country that’s supported me so much.”
Labbe did not concede a goal in 46 minutes of work as Canada’s women’s soccer team blanked Nigeria 2-0 in a friendly match at B.C. Place.
Jessie Fleming opened the scoring in the 51st minute and Vanessa Gilles padded the home side’s lead with a goal in the 72nd.
Labbe was subbed off just after the half, greeting fellow ‘keeper Kailen Sheridan at the sideline with a hug.
“I just kind of said ‘This team’s yours. Take this team by the reigns,’” she said. “I’m going to be her biggest fan as well as Erin (McLeod) and Sabrina (D’Angelo) and any other ’keepers that come up through the system.
“It’s an exciting time. It’s easy for me to step away knowing the team’s in good hands.”
The Canadian women are in B.C. as part of a celebration tour recognizing the gold medal they won at the Tokyo Olympics last summer.
The Games were a highlight of Labbe’s career, said Canada’s head coach Bev Priestman.
“Everyone knows the contribution Steph had, particularly, I would say, at the height of her career in the summer. She’s gone out on top, on her terms,” she said.
“It’ll be big gaps 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 medal.
Nigeria sits at No. 39 in the world rankings.
The home side was slow to start the game, possibly because there was so much emotion involved, Priestman said.
Play picked up in the second half and the coach thought her group had numerous opportunities to add to the score.
“We definitely could have scored a few more goals,” she said. “We looked dangerous going forward and that’s the most important thing.”
Canada went up 2-0 in the 72nd minute following a corner kick from Janine Beckie.
Jordyn Huitema got a head on the ball, sending it into Gilles, who headed it in past Nigerian ’keeper Chiamaka Nnadozie.
It was the Angel City FC defender’s third goal for Canada, coming in her 18th national team appearance.
Sheridan made her 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 first goal of the game, sending the ball to Fleming at the top of the six-yard box in the 51st minute. The Chelsea midfielder took a sharp-angle shot that went high over the shoulder of goalkeeper Tochukwu Oluehi.
Oluehi was replaced in net by Nnadozie in the 70th minute after appearing to suffer an injury.
The goal was Fleming’s 16th for Canada, coming in her 99th national team appearance.
The second half started with an emotional moment as Sheridan came in for Labbe.
The veteran ’keeper saluted the standing, cheering crowd — including an entire section of her friends and family, many of whom donned her jersey and trademark pink headband — before hugging her replacement on the sideline.
Tears ran down Labbe’s face as she hugged Priestman, along with the rest of the Canadian training staff and her teammates on the sideline.
The 35-year-old native of Stony Plain, Alta., announced her retirement in January and has already played her final professional game for Paris-Saint Germain.
The home side controlled the majority of the action across the first half but Labbe was pressed into action in the 28th minute.
Rasheedat Ajibade broke through the Canadian defence and sent a rocket flying from the top of the box but Labbe dove to make a fingertip save and keep the score knotted at 0-0.
Canada had a prime chance in the 19th minute when Beckie sent a cross into Christine Sinclair in the box. The captain went for a header and sent a shot into Oluehi’s midsection from just outside the six-yard box.
The two sides will meet again for the second game in the B.C. leg of the celebration tour Monday in Langford, B.C.
The Canadians came into Friday’s game knowing that Nigeria would present a tough test, Priestman said.
“I think they did themselves proud and it will be a difficult game, the next game, no doubt,” she said.
Nigeria’s head coach, Randy Waldrum, was impressed with his side, especially considering that several of the team’s usual starters weren’t able to make it to Canada due to visa issues.
“The girls feel right now that they can play with anyone in the world,” he said. “But we’re also smart enough to recognize that there’s some areas we need to improve in before we’re going to be in that elite category.”
Sinclair was honoured in a pre-game ceremony for breaking the international goal-scoring record when she recorded her 185th goal in January 2019.
The much-delayed celebration saw a video of some of Sinclair’s highlights shown on the big screen before the 38-year-old from Burnaby, B.C., and her two nieces took to the field where she received a commemorative print and a standing ovation from the hometown crowd.
“The fans were tremendous,” Sinclair said. “The energy that they gave us, there’s no better feeling than playing at home.”
Big cheers filled the stadium as the Canadians walked out on the field before kickoff. The players, with gold medals draped around their necks, clapped and waved for the cheering crowd before being presented with Olympic championship rings.
Friday marked the first time the Canadian and Nigerian women’s teams had faced each other since April 2019, when Canada took a 2-1 decision in a friendly in Spain.
Canada was playing its first game at B.C. Place since November 2017 when the women’s squad battled the Americans to a 1-1 draw.
NOTES: Two Nigerian players were taken off the field on stretchers. Ebi Onome left the game in the 59th minute and Grace Kanu in the 80th minute. … A ceremony was held post-game to celebrate Labbe. … All 22 players who won gold for Canada in Tokyo are currently with the women’s team, plus seven young players Priestman hopes to incorporate into upcoming lineups.