Right from the start, Geri Donnelly and her teammates on the national women’s soccer team had something to prove.
And nearly three decades later, it seems that one of the pioneers of the sport has more than proven herself.
After a career that included two World Cups, a CONCACAF championship, and 71 caps (international appearances) with Canada, Donnelly’s achievements were recognized. Earlier last month in Toronto, she was inducted into the Canadian Soccer Hall of Fame.
“It was a huge surprise,” said Donnelly, a teacher at Enver Creek Secondary. “It’s not something you think about as a player, to expect something like this.”
One of the members of Canada’s inaugural women’s national team in 1986, Donnelly was among a group of players that right from the start, had to win.
“They (Soccer Canada) had a tournament for provincial teams in Winnipeg,” she recalled. “From that tournament, they picked 25 players to stay and travel to Minnesota for two games with the United States national team.”
Donnelly was selected to play in the games, the first ever for a Canadian team. And if things didn’t work out, they might have been the last.
“We were told we had to be successful for the program to survive,” she said. “So there was a bit of pressure right away.
“And it was a huge challenge, they (United States) had been together for three years and we were together for three days. We lost the first game 2-0, which I didn’t play in. In the second game, we won 2-1.”
She didn’t mention she scored both goals for Canada, the first in this country’s international history. But when reminded of it, she said it was just a bit of luck.
“I was just in the right place at the right time,” she said. “You don’t think about becoming the first player to score for the team, we were just thinking about winning the game so the team would survive.”
The team did survive, and with its successes over the years, helped build the game internationally to the point where FIFA (International Federation of Association Football) began to consider a Women’s World Cup.
“We had a test tournament in China in 1988, and 40,000 people came out to watch us in our first game,” she recalled of an event successful enough to convince FIFA to stage the inaugural Women’s World Cup in 1991, also in China.
Canada didn’t qualify for that first event, but did for the second World Cup in 1995 in Sweden, where Donnelly played her first three World Cup games, scoring twice. She played in her second World Cup in the United States in 1999, after which she retiring from international play.
“At the 1999 World Cup, I felt we had arrived,” Donnelly said. “In Sweden, it was a good tournament, we all knew what we were playing for. But there weren’t many people watching.”
Average attendance for games in Sweden were a little more than 4,000 fans per game. Four years later in the United States, the average was 37,000 per game, with 90,000 in the seats for the championship game.
“The standard had been set,” said Donnelly.
While done playing for Canada, she wasn’t finished with soccer. She played another six seasons with Surrey United, winning a provincial championship each year before retiring from the game in 2009.
She hasn’t been on the field since, and doesn’t miss it, noting she now has time for the other things she now enjoys – such as cycling and running.
But she is proud of her accomplishments, and those of the team she played for in 71 games. Still a fan of the game, she is looking forward to the 2015 Women’s World Cup, which will be hosted by Canada and will include nine games at BC Place in Vancouver.
“I can’t wait for the World Cup, and the games in Vancouver,” she said. “I wish them (national team players) well, and hope they enjoy it.
“We had it tough. But when you see where the game is now and how popular it is, and realize you had a part in getting it to where it is, it really is gratifying.”