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Colombian teen powerhouse Linda Caicedo: from cancer setback to world star

Colombian teen powerhouse Linda Caicedo: from cancer setback to world star
Linda Caicedo of Colombia in action in the the 2023 Fifa Women’s World Cup Group H match against Morocco at Perth Rectangular Stadium on 3 August. (Photo: Paul Kane / Getty Images)

From her individual displays at the 2023 World Cup, Colombia’s star forward seems poised to entrench herself further as a force on the football pitch. But it wasn’t always smooth sailing for the teen sensation.

Colombia’s star forward Linda Caicedo has proven to be one of the revelations of the Fifa Women’s World Cup, ­currently taking place in Australia and New Zealand.

For those who know and have followed the 18-year-old’s rapid rise to the upper echelons of global superstardom, her exploits are hardly a surprise.

However, those who were not privy to the young prospect’s brilliance have been firmly put on notice.

football caicedo

Linda Caicedo of Colombia celebrates after scoring her team’s first goal in the 2023 Fifa Women’s World Cup Group H match between Germany and Colombia at Sydney Football Stadium on 30 July. (Photo: Cameron Spencer / Getty Images)

Caicedo is perfectly poised to be one of football’s leading lights for years to come.

Already she has shown her star quality by netting one of the goals of the tournament as Colombia downed two-time World Cup winners Germany in Group H. She also netted as her country cruised past South Korea in the opening World Cup game.

She may be just a teenager, over and above being one of the stars of the national team, but Caicedo has so far handled that pressure and expectation relatively well. However, there was a scare in the lead-up to the Germany match when she collapsed during training, clutching her chest.

Colombia coach Nelson Abadia played down the incident, saying Caicedo was merely fatigued because of the demands of the occasion, and that it was nothing to worry about. He was proven right when she brushed aside that incident and scored that stunning strike against the Germans.

Overcoming adversity

The forward, born in February 2005 in the town of Candelaria, has faced and overcome tougher challenges in her young life. This includes being diagnosed with ovarian cancer when she was just 15 years old.

By this time, she had already made her debut at club level – turning out in the colours of local outfit América de Cali. Despite her tender age, she was by then also part of the senior national team setup.

She left América in early 2020 after playing an integral role as the team won its first Colombian Women’s Football League crown. She joined cross-town rivals Deportivo Cali to continue her development. That’s when the cancer blow struck her and threatened to halt her rise.

After surgery to remove the cancerous tumour, the then 15-year-old underwent months of chemotherapy.

“It was a difficult process. Thank God I could overcome it,” she told the BBC. “My family was always behind me and my [national team] was always close as well.”

This support did not stop her from worrying about the future and what it held for her, as well as her budding football career.

“The day they were going to operate on me I thought I would not be able to return to top-level football,” said Caicedo, according to Spain’s Mundo Deportivo.

Those fears were put to bed in late 2020. After her last round of chemotherapy, which had also left her bedridden, she was declared cancer-free.

She made her debut for Deportivo at the tail-end of 2020. In 2021 she claimed her second domestic league title, playing an important role as her new team won their first league title. Caicedo was back.

The attacker spent another year with Deportivo. By this time, some of the world’s biggest football sides were tracking her progress closely. Spanish giants Barcelona had expressed interest. She was also said to be on the radar of English side Chelsea.

Ultimately, in February 2023 she chose Real Madrid as her next destination. There she has also made her mark as she continues to go from strength to strength. But what is her secret to success at such a young age?

“[It comes] from the streets. From playing in my neighbourhood. From what I learnt playing with boys when I was a kid. And obviously from processing all that, I was able to take advantage of it,” she told Fifa.

“I’m still developing. The pressure takes its toll sometimes. But mentally I’m preparing myself to keep doing what I enjoy doing and to keep having fun,” Caicedo said.

Hunger to play

Before heading to Madrid she demonstrated that she had put her health issues aside. Over the course of 2022, she represented Colombia at the Under-17 and Under-20 World Cups.

She also helped the senior side to reach the Copa América final where, although Colombia was vanquished by Brazil, Caicedo was named Player of the Tournament.

“We know her and how talented she is … she’s surprised us but she still has a long way to go. The good thing is that she’s humble, has both feet on the ground and knows that we’re all here to help her improve,” said compatriot Daniela Montoya.

“There’s no limit for Linda. She’s a player who’s destined for great things,” said another national teammate, Leicy Santos.

So highly is Caicedo rated that some are already comparing her to one of the game’s all-time greats – Brazilian legend Marta.

Although she remains way off the stratospheric heights reached by Marta in her own stellar career, she has shown great potential over the past five years.

Who is to say she won’t usurp Queen Marta one day?

For now, though, she will keep her feet on the ground and use them to run rings around defenders. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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