It was five years ago that the career of Colombian defender Natalia Gaitan moved on to a different level. At the South American U-17 Women’s Championship in Chile, she pulled on the captain’s armband for her country for the first time. Without much fuss, and exhibiting an attacking, carefree style of football, her side emerged victorious from the competition, qualifying for the inaugural FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in 2008 in the process.
Two years later, this same generation of Colombian players, still ably marshalled by Gaitan, were the surprise team of the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup Germany 2010. Gaitan, who took a moment out of her busy schedule to speak to FIFA.com, is in no doubt as to the reasons behind this stunning progress.
“It’s taken great discipline," she said. "There’s a core group of six or so players who came through the ranks up to U-17 level, and they’ve all put in a huge amount of work to get this far, with a lot of support from the Colombian FA. That’s been the key factor in getting here and preparing us for the exciting challenges that lie ahead.”
The ‘here’ being referred to is Germany, familiar territory for Las Cafeteras. In 2011 they face the ultimate test of the FIFA Women’s World Cup™, but the fates have not been kind to them in terms of the make-up of their group. Colombia lost their opening match 1-0 to Sweden in a game that the Scandinavians appeared to dominate.
“Unfortunately they broke through down our left flank and we lost a bad goal, but overall I thought we played well," said Gaitan. "We’re a very disciplined side, tactically speaking - we’re always working hard to keep our shape. At times we were able to play our own game, and despite being put under a lot of pressure, we kept them away from our box for the most part.”
The athletic defender was on top form during the match, twice preventing Sweden goals with last-ditch clearances from her own line. “Luckily I happened to be there; (goalkeeper) Sandra [Sepulveda] thanked me in the dressing room afterwards,” she said with a grin.
Despite the setback the defeat represented, Gaitan saw enough signs to feel positive about the rest of the competition: “We got our nerves out of the way in the first game. We now need to take the bull by the horns and try to win our other games against USA and Korea DPR."
There is no doubt that the South Americans’ remaining Group C matches have a daunting look about them. In Sinsheim on Saturday they face USA, opponents Gaitan is extremely familiar with, having spent the last two years living and studying in the American state of Ohio, where she has been performing for her college team at the University of Toledo.
“The USA have some pacy players, like Abby Wambach, who’s one of the best in the world," she said. "But our coach has carefully analysed them, and our aim is to take points from both of our remaining fixtures."
The physical differences between the two teams is significant, as was the case in the match versus the taller and more imposing Swedes. For this reason, Colombia coach Ricardo Rozo has been clear about their tactical approach ahead of the USA game. “We’ve been searching for a style that would best suit our players’ strengths," he explained. "We need to keep the ball on the deck and work hard as a team, keeping the ball moving quickly with short passes.”
His captain is in full agreement with this assessment. “Ever since we left home we’ve been aware that the other teams in our group had a certain advantage over us in that department," said Gaitan. "But we can’t just magically change our physique, so we need to look at other plans of action. We’ve been playing pretty well in defence, so now we just need to start creating more chances, and putting them away of course."
For Gaitan, representing her country is not something that should ever be taken lightly: “Our coach always says that if you have discipline and the right attitude, you’ll never lose. And that’s how we try to play the game. Every time we step out on to the pitch, I’d like to think fans can see that we battle for every ball and run ourselves into the ground until the very last minute."
As far as Gaitan is concerned, living independently away from her family, learning a new language and adapting to a different lifestyle were all factors that helped her to mature and accept responsibility. The experience has had knock-on benefits for her role as captain, to the extent that even during interviews she is measured in her speech, pausing to reflect before answering softly.
“Personally, I would love to be regarded as one of the best defenders in the world," she remarked. "But the real objective is a collective one: to get Colombia into the second round of the tournament."
Football has significantly changed the life of this assured Colombian, who in turn would love to change - with the help of her team-mates - the history of women’s football in the South American nation: “We’re still hopeful, and we’ll fight until the final whistle of the final game against the North Koreans to keep that hope alive. We want to go as far as possible, just like we did last year."