Thursday 19 May 2016, 14:44

Gaitan, Colombia’s very own superwoman

Supergirl’s many extraordinary attributes include flight and super strength, abilities that are shared by Wonder Woman, while Storm has complete command over the weather. With their superpowers, these and other cinema and comic-book heroes have saved the world time and again.

Colombian football has its own female superheroes, the so-called Superpoderosas, whose exceptional talent on the ball, spirit of sacrifice and sheer work rate have taken them very far indeed. After surprising everyone by winning the inaugural South American U-17 Women’s Championship in Chile in 2008, these footballing Avengers have put the Colombian women’s game right on the world map.

Leading them on their rise to prominence has been their intrepid captain Natalia Gaitan, who, like the aforementioned fictional heroes, has had to overcome adversity in the process. Her battling qualities first became evident at the age of four, when she began a battle with leukaemia that she would win hands down. That was the first of many victories for Gaitan. Facing down prejudice in a country where football was seen as a man’s game, she and her team-mates became the pride of Colombia after beating France and reaching the last 16 of the FIFA Women’s World Cup Canada 2015™.

That class of 2008, which also went on to appear at the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup Germany 2010 and at two senior world finals competitions (Germany 2011 and Canada 2015), is now gearing up for the Women’s Olympic Football Tournament Rio 2016, determined to improve on their performance at London 2012, where they went out in the group phase.

“London, or should I say Scotland, which is where we actually played, was a good experience,” said Gaitan, in conversation with Speaking from Valencia, where she now plays in the Spanish league after three years in the USA’s NWSL, she added: “It was the first time for us, though, and there were a lot of expectations and a lot of nerves. We didn’t enjoy it that much. I hope this time will be different and that we can get more out of it both on and off the pitch.”

When she started out in the game, Gaitan could never have imagined she would one day be able to make a living from it, a dream beyond the reach of most female players. Aware of how fleeting opportunities in her sport can be, however, she does have something to fall back on, another secret attribute that will come in handy when she eventually hangs up her boots.

“I’ve got my business management degree,” revealed the 25-year-old, “and last year I split my time between football and my job. It’s important to do a second job and have your future sorted out, although I’d like to keep doing my bit and help to develop women’s football in my country.”

Familiar foes As in every good superhero story, there is always a bad guy, or in this particular case two bad guys: France and USA, both of whom habitually block Colombia’s path in major competitions. Drawn together in the group phase at London 2012, the three of them will cross swords once again at Rio 2016, in a section that also features New Zealand. Las Cafeteras have fared none too well against their old rivals, losing to both of them at the last Olympics and to the Stars and Stripes in the Round of 16 at Canada 2015.

Unable to suppress a smile at the repeat draw, Gaitan said: “The champions of the world again!” Playing down the importance of it all, however, she added, “There were 11 very tough teams and any one of them would have been hard for us to beat. The matches are going to be very competitive and we’ll need to be fully focused and ready to give our all. The key will be making as few mistakes as possible.”

Felipe Taborda’s charges can take inspiration from one previous meeting with the French, however: that World Cup group game in Canada last year. An admirer of Paolo Maldini, Mario Yepes and Javier Mascherano, Gaitan recalled that memorable 2-0 win in Moncton, in which the Colombians discovered what it took to win big games on the big stage: “It’s one of the highlights of my career so far. The most important thing was to keep our shape at the back and then, after scoring, to keep our calm and concentration. If you work hard, you can get results.”

Fuelling Las Superpoderosas' rise has been a marked improvement in their physical fitness, along with their increasing experience on the international stage. Pointing to the areas in which she, herself, has raised her game, Gaitan said: “I’ve improved a lot positionally. I’ve learned to anticipate where the ball is going, which has helped me perform better in my defensive midfield role.”

One thing that has not changed over these last eight years of dedication to football is the wholehearted commitment and steely desire she shows on the pitch. Gaitan plays the game with gritted teeth, literally so, as she proved in a Spanish league match against Real Sociedad last October, when she lost several teeth after colliding with an opponent, forcing her to go on a liquid diet for 40 days.

She took that setback with her usual sense of calm, a personality trait that has helped her consolidate her position as a leader in a dressing room that is now seeing a generational handover, with new faces linking up with a core of experienced players.

Gaitan sets the very best example for the newcomers to follow, a fact recognised by her peers, who voted her Colombia’s FIFPro Female Player of the Year. Reflecting on that accolade, she said: “It’s the first time that FIFPro has got involved in women’s football, which can only be a good thing.

“It’s another step forward in the fight for equality, which we’re also looking to achieve in aspects such as pay and social security," she said. "I’m delighted to have the support of my colleagues, but the achievements of the national team will always be more important to me than individual awards. Even so, it’s very pleasing because it’s reward for many years of hard work and dedication.”

A veteran of many battles already, Colombia’s very own Superwoman can expect to enjoy many more years at the top. Her next mission will be at Rio 2016, after which will come the start of the Colombian Women’s League in 2017, a competition she is determined to be involved in. In the meantime, she and her ball-playing Superpoderosa team-mates will remain as vigilant as ever, keeping an eye out for the villains and making sure that the Colombian women’s game stays on the up and up.