The 2023 Women's World Cup is already breaking records. It's the biggest tournament to date, with 32 participating teams. And though it's possibly the last opportunity for several iconic players – like Marta and Megan Rapinoe – to win big for their home countries, there's also an unmistakable rising star on the field this year: Colombia's Linda Caicedo.
Who is she? At only 18, Caicedo is quickly becoming one of the biggest names in soccer.
She made her professional debut at age 14 playing for América de Cali and finished that year as the top scorer in the Colombian league.
When she was only 15, Caicedo was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She kept the news relatively private as she underwent surgery to remove a tumor and received treatment until declared cancer-free. She wasted no time in returning to the field, winning her second Colombian league title in 2021.
Although already a star at home, Caicedo earned a much larger spotlight during her international tournaments last year. At the Copa America Femenina, she scored the goal that cemented Colombia's qualification for this year's World Cup as well as the 2024 Olympics. She went on to be named MVP of the tournament.
But Caicedo didn't shy away from some of the controversies at the Copa America, says soccer journalist and researcher Júlia Belas Trindade. "The players were protesting against the federation for bad conditions, and she was one of the most outspoken players even though she was just 17 at the time."
After turning 18, Caicedo signed to Real Madrid C.F. as a forward in February.
What's the big deal? Now, Caicedo's playing her third World Cup in the span of a year, following impressive performances in both the under-20 and under-17 editions in 2022.
It's safe to say her adult World Cup debut comes with a lot of expectations for a player on her trajectory. But that hasn't seemed to slow Caicedo down: she scored a goal in each Colombia's first two matches, including one that set up the country's historic win over Germany on Sunday.
Trindade says her second goal – and Caicedo's footwork – is the highlight of the teen's performance thus far, and shows just how much she's able to navigate the pressure that even older players struggle with during the World Cup.
"She enters the box, she dribbles, and then she pulls the ball a little bit to the right. She kicks the ball and it goes straight into the goal – that is brilliant, and that's something that's not easy to do at all. But Linda makes it look really easy."
But even with Caicedo's splashy success during her first two games, fans and analysts are raising concerns about the player's health, especially given her medical history. In a video from a training session last week, Caicedo unexpectedly lay down as her teammates and medical personnel rushed to her side. On Sunday's game against Germany, the player also retreated to the ground and received assistance from her team's medics. Both instances were attributed to fatigue and exhaustion.
"We know that Linda had some problems in the past, but nothing to be worried about," Colombia's assistant coach Angelo Marsiglia said after Sunday's events. "She was very tired of course. She had a bit of acceleration in her heart, but this wasn't a problem."
Trindade emphasizes that there's no use in speculating about Caicedo's health, but that given her battle with cancer and young age, it makes sense the public is focused on her well-being.
"She might just be tired, or she might just be jet lagged. But if she's not, then how do we address that as media, as fans, as a federation, as FIFA?" she says. "There is a responsibility on all of these entities to players' health in general. That's something that's been neglected for so many years, and it's really good that we're now paying attention to it and demanding answers and demanding things to be better."
What are people saying? She has a super bright future, in this World Cup and beyond.
After just the first two games, Caicedo was already being called one of the heroes of this year's tournament. U.S. player Sam Mewis, who's sidelined with an injury this year but covering the World Cup for the Men in Blazers media network, told NPR's Sacha Pfeiffer:
"She's a really dangerous attacking player. To perform at this level in such a huge tournament with all eyes on you and big pressure — I think it's just a sign of how talented she is and that we should expect big things from her to come."
Even before this World Cup started, Caicedo was already being compared to the likes of Marta, the Brazilian player who's scored more World Cup goals than any man or woman. The fact that Caicedo then became the second youngest player from South America to score a goal in the World Cup – following Marta's record when she was 17 – only reinforced those parallels.
Trindade says it's a fair and interesting comparison, and shows how much Marta's outspokenness to uplift younger players is paying off.
"Linda has something this younger generation, born in the 2000s, has: they're really comfortable in the spotlight, I think because of social media," she says. "They don't mind being visible, while Marta for so many years – because of so much prejudice, because of her own personality – couldn't. I don't think [Caicedo] will have to go through so many of the things Marta did."
And in a sport that still struggles for recognition and investment in its region, Trindade sees Caicedo as a new beacon of hope for the future of soccer not just in Colombia, but across the continent.
"More than just comparing and saying Linda Caicedo is the new Marta, we have to say Linda Caicedo is a continuation of Marta's legacy, a new step into women's football and what it can become in South America."
So, what now?
Colombia will face off against Morocco on Thursday for their last match of the group stage. They're currently leading group H.
Following Sunday's victory, Caicedo noted that the team already had their sights set on the next game. "We haven't won anything yet," she said. "The World Cup is ongoing."
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