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Linda Caicedo: Colombia's team leader and perhaps the Women's World Cup breakout star


Colombia is the last team from the Americas still in the Women's World Cup. Tomorrow morning they'll play England in Sydney's quarterfinals. This is the furthest Colombian soccer has ever advanced on the international stage. As Jorge Valencia reports from Bogota, the team is led in part by a teenager who may become the tournament's breakout star.

JORGE VALENCIA, BYLINE: The Colombian striker Linda Caicedo scored one of the most magical goals of the tournament. It was against Germany last week. She caught a rebound from the left edge of the penalty box, zigzagged between two defenders and curled the ball into the top right corner of the goal. We're not going to play a recording because somebody else has strict broadcasting rights, and they have really good lawyers. But the official Colombian narrator yelled one of those epic goals for 16 seconds. And fans here in Colombia were up early, before work, before school, watching in astonishment.


VALENCIA: Maria Alejandra Useche Garcia is a fan here in Bogota. She and her friend Paula Ortiz Sanchez play together in an academy called Future Soccer. They're both 14 years old. And Ortiz says that for them, this World Cup is historic.

MARIA: It's, like, really representative for our country. It make us as woman feel like we can play soccer without something that they would say about us - like, something bad.

VALENCIA: Useche says that growing up in a country like Colombia, where a national women's team didn't officially exist until 30-some years ago or a professional women's league didn't exist until six years ago, girls face a lot of stereotypes.

MARIA: Like girls are not made for playing football, or it's just for boys.

VALENCIA: Really? Does anybody ever say that to you?


MARIA: Yeah, when I was a little kid.



PAULA: In the school.

VALENCIA: Who said that?

MARIA: In the school and boys from other teams.

VALENCIA: Those were barriers that Colombia's wonderkid Linda Caicedo, who's barely 18, faced when she was growing up near the city of Cali. As a child, her parents initially could only place her in an all-boys academy. But by the time she was 10, she was standing out no matter where she played, says former coach Jhon Alber Ortiz Arce - one, because of her innate talent and agility...

JHON ALBER ORTIZ ARCE: (Speaking Spanish).

VALENCIA: ...But also, Ortiz says, because she had character. He says he could see her discipline when she started being asked for interviews.


LINDA CAICEDO: (Speaking Spanish).

VALENCIA: Here she is after a match in a South America tournament in Paraguay. She was 14. Her interviewer asked her if she was excited to make friends from other countries.


CAICEDO: (Speaking Spanish).

VALENCIA: "No," Caicedo said. "We didn't come here to make friends. We came here to focus on our objective." A year later, at age 15, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Former coach Ortiz says Caicedo thought she wouldn't play again.

ORTIZ ARCE: (Speaking Spanish).

VALENCIA: "She survived through her faith and determination," he says, "something that shows the kind of character she has." Nathalia Prieto directs the women's soccer website Femina Futbol.

NATHALIA PRIETO: (Speaking Spanish).

VALENCIA: "Now," Prieto says, "the Colombian soccer Federation is bragging about Caicedo and the women's team." "The players, though," she says, "have earned their merits not because of them but despite them." And they're inspiring younger players, like Paula Ortiz Sanchez. She says she wants to keep playing forever.

PAULA: Professionally, and in, like, big leagues such as, like, Spain League or English League.

VALENCIA: Just like Linda Caicedo, who this year signed on to play with Real Madrid in Spain. For NPR News, I'm Jorge Valencia in Bogota.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUPE FIASCO SONG, "KICK, PUSH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Jorge Valencia
Jorge Valencia has been with North Carolina Public Radio since 2012. A native of Bogotá, Colombia, Jorge studied journalism at the University of Maryland and reported for four years for the Roanoke Times in Virginia before joining the station. His reporting has also been published in the Wall Street Journal, the Miami Herald, and the Baltimore Sun.