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Colombia’s Linda Caicedo completes the ultimate fairytale

Colombia 2-0 South Korea (Usme P 30’, Caicedo 39’)

SYDNEY – Three years ago, at the age of 15, Linda Caicedo was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Before heading to Australia, the Colombia forward had a message: “I am an example that you can get out of that and overcome this.”

As she wheeled away from a curling rocket on her World Cup debut against South Korea, with a broad grin and her fingers curled into a heart, it ought to have felt like the pinnacle of her climb back to the top. The reality is it is impossible to know where her ceiling lies.

In the last year, she has played in three World Cups – the U17s and U20s preceding this one – finished as runner-up in the Copa America, where she won the Golden Ball, and earned a move to Real Madrid. It may feel a little hard to keep track of her career – she is still just 18, but made her international debut aged 14, a year before her health problems began.

Caicedo, though, has a peculiar blessing. Nobody has ever been in any doubt that this is where she is supposed to be. Unwittingly, she has become a role model and insists she “just tries to enjoy this moment” and avoid the “big pressure” by staying “humble, talented and joyful”.

Typically, teen prodigies have a tendency to be divisive by their nature. South Korea’s 16-year-old Casey Phair became the Women’s World Cup’s youngest ever player in this match – she was born in 2007 and as part of an academy programme in the US, she does not yet have a club. Colin Bell, the South Korea head coach, was adamant she is “the future”, a “strong, fast player with physicality”, but some back home are not buying the romance of it all, given she was picked at the expense of 76-cap international Lee Min-a.

Likewise, when a 10-year-old Ghanaian Matilda Assabil become the world’s youngest professional footballer when she appeared for Starlet Ladies last year, there was not so much anticipation but apprehension at why a child so young should be catapulted into the high-pressure extremities of elite sport.

Caicedo is considerably older, of course, but she was younger than Phair is now when she first made her Colombia breakthrough. The expectation has been building since then and on the biggest stage of all, every inch was vindicated.

It may not have mattered either way to the sea of gold, blue and red encircling the Allianz Stadium, enthralled by this gritty, end-to-end theatre. They roared along the Ode to Joy long before they knew whether they would have any joy to celebrate. Their heroes made sure of it with two goals in nine minutes, at a time when South Korea had enjoyed the only clear chances.

The first, it almost goes without saying at this tournament, was a penalty, which Catalina Usme knocked calmly into the bottom corner. Shim Sheoyeon was shown a yellow for the handball after such frantic scrambling from goalkeeper Yoon Young-geul. Cool as you like from Usme – the celebration, which included the substitutes, was anything but.

Caicedo was slightly fortuitous to double Colombia’s lead, though the hit itself was preceded by a swift turn onto the other foot that duped the defender. Yoon’s heroics were over – the ball was dipping, but there did not appear to be that much power on the shot; still, it bounced off her gloves and behind her into the net.

Amidst the din of the tournament’s best atmosphere so far, there was an audible pause – stop, for an intake of breath – for a split of a moment as Caicedo ran at goal. The cut inside is becoming a trademark.

Bell had to reflect on Caicedo, even as he seethed at his own side’s lack of fitness as the last team to prepare for the World Cup.

“Linda is a really big talent but we just gave her too much space,” Bell said. “I used to play full-back so I’d just slide tackle. You can’t just shadow a player, you need that physicality. Linda is very strong 1v1 but we made it too easy for them… Exciting player, but we need to be stronger in the 1v1 situation. You’re a defender, defend.”

That may be true, but it threatens to detract from the energy that got Colombia here in the first place. They did not qualify in 2019 and the World Cup was poorer for it – there was an attempt to host this one, instead it was awarded to Australia and New Zealand.

Best of all, they arrived in Sydney refusing to live up to the narrative. A morbid curiosity has followed the team since their final warm-up game against Republic of Ireland was abandoned due to its physicality. Ireland’s head coach Vera Pauw said her players had “feared for their bodies”, with Denise O’Sullivan taken to hospital with a shin injury.

If that was a friendly, what on earth would happen when it got competitive? But they did not brutalise here, with a couple of exceptions. Left-back Manuela Vanegas was lucky not to be shown a red card by English referee Rebecca Welch for her challenge on Son Hwa-yeon, and a brilliant driving run from former Chelsea midfielder Ji So-yun could only be stopped when she was hauled down in the middle of the park.

Head coach Nelson Abadia, who is serving a touchline ban, remains optimistic that an increasing emphasis on youth will help Colombia to play a more positive brand of football. Since taking charge, so much of his focus has been on age-group teams that it felt fitting Caicedo, Colombia’s greatest female prodigy, put this match beyond South Korea.

His assistant, Mario Abadia, could only marvel. “Linda is an extraordinary player,” he said. “She’s a very humble person and is very calm despite everything she has gone through.”

“She has a great maturity level. She is evolving day by day, you can see it on the pitch. She’s always asking for the ball, pushing harder, she’s from a different planet.”

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