World Cup tournaments tend to be defined by an emerging star and, this year, it’s Colombia’s 18-year-old sensation Linda Caicedo who is shining brightest.
The teenager, who signed for Real Madrid earlier this year, was highly thought of before games got underway in Australia and New Zealand but she’s exceeded almost every expectation.
In just two games, Caicedo has scored twice and inspired her team to two victories, including a famous win against two-time world champion Germany.
It was in that game, early in the second half, that she produced one of the moments of the World Cup so far.
With the scores level, the youngster picked the ball up in Germany’s box before jinking past two defenders and rifling a shot into the corner of the net.
It was a magical moment that underlined her potential to become one of the finest players in the women’s game.
“I wanted to shoot and thank God the ball went in,” Caicedo told FIFA after the game.
That jaw-dropping moment in Sunday’s match came after a worrying incident where Caicedo appeared to collapse during a training session in midweek.
Colombia coach Nelson Abadia said on Saturday that the teenager was just “tired” and that the incident, in which she grabbed her chest and fell to the floor, was linked to the stress of the tournament.
Many questioned whether Caicedo would be fit enough for Colombia’s second game. She not only turned up against the world No.2, but she also helped conquer them.
It’s yet another example of Caicedo’s ability to overcome obscurity.
Caicedo possesses that rare talent where the ball appears stuck to her foot. No matter the pressure from opponents, she always manages to wriggle away to the delight of spectators.
Born in Candelaria in the west of Colombia, she fell in love with soccer and attributes her exciting, slightly unorthodox, style, to playing in the streets as a child.
“From the street, from playing in my neighbourhood, from what I learned playing with boys when I was a kid,” she recently told FIFA, when asked where she learnt to play the way she does.
At just 14, Caicedo made her professional debut for Colombian side America de Cali and finished her first season as the league’s top scorer in her side’s title win, according to FIFA+.
Just a few months later and she earned her international call-up to the Colombian national side.
Things were progressing quickly for the youngster, but all was about to come to a halt.
At 15, Caicedo was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, shortly after making her senior debut for the national side. The youngster underwent surgery and chemotherapy treatment.
If that wasn’t enough weight for the youngster’s shoulders, it all happened during the the Covid-19 pandemic.
“There was a difficult process, thank God I could overcome it,” she said, per the BBC. “My family was always behind me and my coach beside me was always very close.”
Just two years after her diagnosis and Caicedo was back helping Colombia reach the final of Copa América Femenina where, despite finishing runner-up to Brazil, she was named the best player of the tournament.
By now her form was attracting the attention of Europe’s biggest clubs and Caicedo was eventually snapped up by Real Madrid in February.
“I’m still developing,” Caicedo told FIFA+ before the World Cup began.
“The pressure takes its toll sometimes, but mentally I’m preparing myself to keep doing what I enjoy doing and to keep having fun.”
Her Colombian teammates know they are playing with someone special when Caicedo crosses that white line.
The national team’s game-plan revolves around getting Caicedo on the ball. She’s the player who can make things happen; she’s the player who can help them go deep into this competition.
“There’s no limit for Linda, she’s a player who’s destined for great things,” Colombia midfielder Leicy Santos told FIFA on Sunday.
“She was born to be great and she will be. She needs us to be where she is, but there’s no limit for her. She’s 18 and has still got so much to give to football.”
Caicedo’s goal against South Korea in the first game of the tournament ensured she has now scored in three separate World Cup tournaments in the space of a year, having already shone at the Under-17 and Under-20 editions in 2022.
It’s a statistic that highlights her importance to the national team setup which failed to qualify for the senior women’s World Cup in 2019.
Now, sparing an unlikely swing of goal difference, Colombia will qualify for the last 16 of the World Cup. Just a point against Morocco in its final group game on Thursday will ensure it does so as Group H winners.
The nation’s best run at the Women’s World Cup ended at the last 16 stage in 2015 but, if Caicedo gets her way, Colombia will be in Australia and New Zealand to the very end.
“Colombia is on the way to great things, it really is one step at a time,” she told FIFA Sunday. “We want to be champions.”