08/09/2012 09:58 EDT | Updated 10/09/2012 05:12 EDT

Matheson lifts weary Canadian women's soccer side to Olympic bronze medal

COVENTRY, England - John Herdman has a picture of Christine Sinclair in his home office in Vancouver from last summer's World Cup. Canada's captain has her head in her hands, her face twisted in anger and despair.

When the Newcastle native took over as coach of the Canadian women's soccer team last fall, he promised his players he would use that photo as his motivation.

"I'll never see a player of that quality in that state after a tournament," Herdman says he told them. "It's great to see Christine smiling, you know?"

The Canadians will be smiling for a long time to come after capturing a bronze medal with a 1-0 win over France at the London Summer Games on Thursday — the first time a Canadian soccer team has ever climbed an Olympic podium, and a remarkable turnaround for a squad that only a year ago was in tatters after its disastrous World Cup performance.

"Christine had the quote that's been inspiring us all: 'You can't be great until you've achieved great things. Getting the medal today was that great thing,'" Herdman said.

Diana Matheson scored in the 92nd minute to provide a stunning ending to a game that saw the French utterly dominate a weary Canadian side. The French outshot Canada 25-4, and 4-1 on target, banging shots off the crossbar and post and forcing 'keeper Erin McLeod to make some spectacular saves.

Just when the game appeared headed for extra time — which would have been bad news for the gassed Canadians — the 28-year-old Matheson pounced on Canada's lone scoring chance, running onto a deflection off a French defender from a Sophie Schmidt shot, firing a low hard ball past French goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi.

Rhian Wilkinson tossed the Oakville, Ont., native — all five feet of her — over her shoulder like a sack of flour in celebration.

"I have no idea what happened. I can't remember it," Matheson said. "I think the ball came down the left and I was in the right place at the right time. The ball was right there, the net was basically open, it definitely was in slow motion.

"It felt like a dream. It feels unreal right now."

The bronze marks the country's first Summer Games medal in a traditional team sport since a silver in men's basketball in 1936.

It was also the redemption the Canadians had been dreaming of after hitting what they say was "rock bottom" at the World Cup. They went winless, mathematically eliminated in a 4-0 thrashing by the same France squad they beat Thursday at City of Coventry Stadium. They vowed they would never feel that way again. Herdman, who was hired to pick up the pieces after the disaster in Germany, promised them they wouldn't.

"I know personally after the World Cup last year, I was sort of like a broken soccer player," said Sinclair. "Put so much time into this program and then to finish dead last at the World Cup was almost like, 'Are we ever going to get there?'

"He's a genius," Sinclair added of the 38-year-old coach. "He’s a very smart man. He's a very powerful speaker, a motivational speaker, and after last year's World Cup, we were thirsting for anything."

Sinclair, who has to be a favourite for FIFA women's player of the year with her Olympic performance, briefly fought back tears in the post-game news conference.

This time, at least, they were tears of joy. Three days earlier, the 29-year-old from Burnaby, B.C., struck for three goals in Canada's 4-3 heartbreaking semifinal loss to the Americans — a controversial result that took 123 minutes to decide and left the threat of FIFA sanctions hanging over the Canadian squad over "incidents that occurred" after the game.

Sinclair set the Olympic women's record for tournament goals scored with six. But the face of women's soccer in Canada wasn't thinking about individual achievements Thursday.

"I think I'm in shock," Sinclair said. "There's been a group of us that has been on this team for a long time that have experienced the highs and lows of international soccer and nothing compares to this. I don't think any of us at the end of last year's World Cup would have thought this was possible."

Last year's team would have folded under the French barrage Thursday afternoon in front of pro-Canadian crowd of 12,465 fans. Instead, they threw themselves at every French shot. Desiree Scott saved one on the goal-line, Carmelina Moscato just barely got her body behind another. McLeod had the wind knocked out of her after a brave clearance that sent her crashing into a French player.

"This team is the most resilient team I've ever been a part of and it showed," McLeod said. "They were coming in waves and we stuck to our guns and we came out with the win."

After the goal, the Canadians asked the referee how much time was left. They were told "10 seconds."

"I thought, 'Oh my gosh, we're going to win the game,'" Sinclair said.

The team lingered long on the pitch afterward, carrying a Canadian flag about the size of a soccer net while they applauded the crowd in the 32,609-seat stadium — normally home to Coventry City Sky Blues.

The Canadians then dumped a tub of Gatorade on Herdman. In the locker-room after, they linked arms and sang their victory song —Celine Dion's "The Power of Love."

Melissa Tancredi, who said she probably won't play through to the 2016 Games, called the Olympics a watershed moment for women's soccer in Canada.

"Because we've been through everything," said Tancredi, who is working on her chiropractic degree. "This team has been through every single emotion for the past 10 years. We've been the underdogs for the past 10 years as well, but what a way to turn it around and get a bronze medal for this country."

They've certainly caught Canada's attention.

The Canadians split their first two games of the Olympics, then laid down three of their finest performances in the team's history — a come-from-behind 2-2 tie with Sweden, a clean-sheet victory over Britain and then the drama-filled loss to the Americans that ended their hopes for gold.

The seventh-ranked Canadian side gained more and more support along the way, and by their loss to the U.S. was the talk of the Games back home.

Herdman said the Olympics could have played out one of two ways.

"We were going to have a call for Herdman's head, more moan and groan, paranoia, you know, 'We need a new coach and a new program.' But we've gone the other way now, we're now at the top of our game," he said.

"We finished third in the world, and that's a massive achievement. So the job now is to stay there, get higher, get closer to the U.S., that's what I'm asking, for all of Canada to get behind this team for World Cup 2015, we want to be in the final with the U.S.A. and win."

Canada is hosting the next World Cup.

Sinclair isn't going anywhere before 2015. The good news for the player who now has 143 goals in her illustrious career is that she finally has strong players around her after carrying the Canadian team on her back for too long.

"She has been our leader for how many years," McLeod said. "Sinc has done incredible things mostly on her own, so for her, it must be an amazing feeling to have everybody with her.

"She's always stuck with us and always believed in us, and that's why she's our captain."

Her teammates were already suggesting Sinclair as Canada's flag-bearer for Sunday's closing ceremonies.

"If it was to happen, it would be the hugest honour," Sinclair said. "I'm such a proud Canadian and I don't even know what I'd say if that happened."

Sinclair had a couple of excellent scoring chances for Canada in the first half, but launched one shot over the crossbar and then lost control of the ball on a breakaway.

The French took advantage of a sagging Canadian squad in the second half, running roughshod over Canada's back line, firing shot after shot at McLeod. Gaetane Thiney banged one off the post, Elodie Thomis hit the crossbar, Scott had to lunge to save a shot on the goal-line off a France corner kick.

Les Bleues — whose roster includes 11 players of Olympique Lyonnais, winners of the 2011 UEFA Women's Champions League — had a strong run through the tournament. The French narrowly missed the gold-medal game in a 2-1 loss semifinal loss to Japan — a game that could have drawn level but for a missed France penalty.

The Americans went on to beat Japan 2-1 for gold and all three teams received their medals after the game on the pitch at London's iconic Wembley Stadium.