It is not easy to be a trailblazer, a role that involves treading paths no one else has taken and drawing on all your mental strength to overcome the obstacles and barriers you face along the way. Complete your journey, however, and the sense of satisfaction is immense.
Just ask Colombia’s first female professional footballer Yoreli Rincon, who spoke to FIFA.com about her inspirational story. “It’s great to be able to open doors,” said the midfielder, who now plays her club football for Sweden’s mighty Malmo, one of Europe’s leading sides, and is one of the main reasons why the women’s game is riding high in Colombia.
Having made her way to the top, Rincon is not about to forget how hard it was for her to get there in the first place: “It was very tough, starting with my father, who early on used to burst my footballs with a knife so that I couldn’t play. On top of that we were a family of modest means and we barely had enough money to buy shoes. My brother used to make me shin pads from cardboard boxes.”
Reflecting on her childhood days without a trace of bitterness in her voice, she added: “My father bought me boots that were three sizes too big for me so that they’d last me for years. And there were no women’s teams in my city either. People were always calling me names, things like ‘man’ and ‘tomboy’, and girls didn’t like me either because they said I played a man’s sport.”
Watering her roots
Determined that other young girls in her home region of Santander should not experience what she went through, Rincon has gone to the lengths of founding a women’s football academy in the area.
“I don’t want all that to happen to them,” she explained. “I had people saying I wasn’t cut out for it and I had to leave home at the age of 12 to carry on playing. We’ve got girls of every age at my academy now, from the age of three right up to university students.”
Though Rincon’s experiences have made her all the tougher, the cheery Colombian has kept on smiling through it all. And when she moved to Sweden a few months ago and had to grapple with language problems, she stuck it out and found a solution.
“I didn’t speak English or Swedish,” she explained, laughing. “And there they were talking to me in Swedish and translating into English. I didn’t understand a thing. It got to the stage where I started thinking, ‘What am I doing here?’. But the girls in the team gave me a hand with everything and helped me settle in.”
Rincon has since earned the distinction of being the first Colombian to play and score in the UEFA Women’s Champions League, and is now fighting for the Swedish title.
There are local, school and city tournaments for women now, and whatever their level they’re all playing for the love of the game.
Discussing the upward trajectory her career has taken, she said: “It feels amazing to be part of such a fantastic show. We beat Tireso, the best team in Sweden, not so long ago. It was a key game for us, with the league title more or less at stake, and we’ve managed to pull level with them on points.”
The mighty Tireso have Spanish star Vero Boquete in their ranks as well as the peerless Marta, a player with whom Rincon has often been compared. Though honoured, the Colombian prefers to be seen in her own light: “People have always likened me to her. Obviously it’s really nice to be compared to the best player in the world, but I’d prefer people to see me as Yoreli.”
Staying on the subject of Marta, she added: “My secret dream is to achieve even more than she has. I’m still very young but I hope to do that at some stage of my career.”
Rincon certainly has time on her side. Amazingly for someone who has already competed in three FIFA world finals competitions – two of them at youth level, a women’s Olympic football tournament and several South American and Pan-American championships, she is still only 20.
The modest star laughed when that point was put to her: “Yes, people see me as something of an old hand because of all the experience I’ve got at international level and they’re always surprised when they see how young I am. I’ve only been playing professional football for two years though, and I’ve still got a long way to go.”
With the help of their classy No10, the Colombian national team has come far in the last few years, reflecting the transformation that the women’s game has undergone across the country.
“It’s incredible,” she said, expressing her delight at the turnaround. “There are local, school and city tournaments for women now, and whatever their level they’re all playing for the love of the game. I was the country’s first professional, but there are four or five of us now, which is something you never saw before.”
Like their male compatriots, Colombia’s women are on the crest of a wave. And Rincon, the little girl who grew up watching Zinedine Zidane videos out of view of her parents, has had a lot to do with putting them there.