Maria Hurtado never knows when she is beaten, as her performance in Colombia’s 2-1 defeat to Nigeria in Alajuela on Wednesday showed. Time and again the pint-sized midfielder demanded the ball from her team-mates before taking on and slipping past her opponents, making light of the difference in size and physique between them.
In doing so, the gifted No7 showed her fearlessness, a quality that has been part of her make-up since she started playing the game at the age of 10 with her brother and cousin in Antioquia, her home town.
“It’s no surprise that the girls call her Pele,” said Colombia coach Fabian Taborda, whose paternal instincts came out when he consoled the distraught player after the 2-1 loss to the Nigerians, which spelled Las Cafeteras’ elimination from the competition.
A born winner, Hurtado reflected on Wednesday’s loss: “I’m the smallest of the lot (she stands 5’0 high) and they’re all very tall. Nigeria are an athletic side but we gave our all.”
The creative midfielder certainly held nothing back against the Africans and required treatment on no fewer than five occasions during the game.
Shrugging off the pain, she kept on fighting: “They caught me just above the knee on one occasion, which really hurt, and then they trod on my ankle in another tackle, which was pretty sore too.”
Seated by her side, her admiring coach said: “Maria Helena has a lot of attitude and character, and she showed that today against a great team in Nigeria. She wasn’t frightened at all. She took them on and came out on top every time. She should be congratulated for the great job she did.”
An admirer of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard but very much a disciple of Carlos El Pibe Valderrama, Hurtado has a very clear idea of what her job is on the pitch: “I’m skilful and I like to dribble, but it’s getting the whole team to play that gives me the biggest kick.”
In her case playing means one-touch football, or two at the most: “When I get on the ball I have to set the pace for my team. My family tells me they’re very proud of what I’m doing. They tell me to keep going because they feel I can go far.”
Hurtado will no doubt be putting her body on the line again in Colombia’s final Group D match against China PR in Liberia on Sunday.
Looking ahead to that game, she said: “We want to win so we can go home with our heads held high. We’ll be giving our all, just as we’ve been doing up to now, and trying to do our fans proud. They’ve been our 12th man.”
As for future goals, she has several in mind, including a move to the country where the original Pele burst on to the international scene 56 years ago: “I want to move up the U-20 team, and if I could choose a country where I could play, I’d go for Sweden. I’d like to play there.”