SYDNEY - At 15, Linda Caicedo, now a star forward on Colombia’s Women’s World Cup roster, received a crushing diagnosis. She had ovarian cancer.
Caicedo already had made her debut for Colombian professional team América de Cali and the Colombian senior women’s national team.
With this news, though, her soccer career seemed over.
"I remember I was going into surgery one day and I was feeling really bad," Caicedo said, "because I thought that I was not going to be able to play top-level football again."
The Colombian women’s team head coach, Nelson Abadía, provided words of encouragement over the phone.
"He said, ‘No, just relax,’" Caicedo recalled. "‘You’re going to come back.’"
She’s now one of the best young players in the world.
The 18-year-old Caicedo is expected to make her Women’s World Cup debut in Colombia's opener against South Korea on Tuesday at the Sydney Football Stadium.
To those battling cancer, Caicedo has a message: "I am an example that you can get out of that and overcome this."
Tuesday’s match also could mark the World Cup debut of 16-year-old South Korea forward Casey Phair. Born to a Korean mother and American father and raised in the U.S., Phair is not expected to start. Should she play, she would become the youngest player ever to play in a World Cup, men’s or women’s.
"We just take it day by day," South Korea coach Collin Bell said Monday, responding to questions about Phair. "I don’t really want to hype up the young player too much before she’s even played."
While Phair’s role is not certain, Caicedo is expected to start and play a large part in Colombia’s efforts. For Colombians, she represents the potential of women’s football both domestically and internationally.
"She’s everybody’s hope," said Valentina Peña Orozco, sports director at W Radio Colombia. "Linda is Colombia’s promise."
Caicedo played in Colombia’s Liga Femenina for several years before signing with Real Madrid in February. She tied for the scoring lead at the 2021 Copa Libertadores Femenina for Deportivo Cali and was named the best player in the 2022 Copa América Femenina.
Her performance at the Copa América helped secure Colombia’s spot in the 2023 Women’s World Cup.
Caicedo also scored twice and recorded four assists in 10 appearances for Real Madrid last season.
Colombia’s match against South Korea could prove pivotal, as the two nations are expected to compete for a spot in the knockout rounds from Group H. Germany and Morocco also are in the group.
Abadía has coached Caicedo since she was 12 and brought her into the senior team when she was 14. He’s been Colombia’s national women’s team coach since 2017.
" We know the players’ enormous ability, and we know that those brilliant moments that each one has — we’re going to have them," he said.
Zeke Palermo is a student at the University of Georgia’s Carmical Sports Media Institute.