Salas: I think about the World Cup every day

Maria Paula Salas was only 11 when she presented herself at a Costa Rica national team trial ahead of the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup 2014, a tournament the country was set to host. Her dream of playing for her nation was about to be put on hold, however, as the Tica forward, who is now 19, explained in an interview with “I arrived with my father but as soon as the coach saw me he said that I couldn’t take part in the trial because I was too small. I remember watching the World Cup and crying. All I wanted to do was play football. “I asked my father if I’d get another chance and he said I would, that there would be more trials. And here I am,” added a smiling Salas, who now plays for her country at both U-20 and senior level. Her second chance came a few months later, but with an U-15 side. It was the start of what she described as “a wonderful journey”, and it is not hard to guess how she reacted when she heard the news that Costa Rica would be hosting the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup.

HOUSTON, TEXAS - JANUARY 28: Yenith Bailey #1 of Panama keeps Maria Salas #17 of Costa Rica from scoring during the first half as Hilary Jaen #4 of Panama looks on during a Group A CONCACAF Women's Olympic Qualifying match at BBVA Compass Stadium on January 28, 2020 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

“I can’t put it into words,” said Salas. “Playing in a World Cup at home is what every player dreams of. That’s why it was so hard to accept that it might have to be cancelled because of the pandemic. And when they confirmed it would be going ahead, but in 2022, it was a mix of happiness and sadness.” Why? “Happiness because we’d finally be playing the competition here and I hope to be part of it, and sadness because some of the girls we’ve been working with since the U-17s won’t be able to play [for age eligibility reasons]. We made a great team.” With the tournament now going ahead, Salas admitted to feeling nervous: “I think about the World Cup every day, even if it’s just for a few seconds. I’ve been trying to qualify for one for years, and it’s very difficult. Sometimes, I even dream that I’m playing in it.”

Family backing

Salas fell in love with the game at a very early age. “I’ve got photos of me with footballs from when I was three, but there were no women’s teams then. I started to play with boys when I was five, and what came next is all down to my parents, godparents, and grandparents.” Explaining the depth of that support, she said, “One day a teacher told my mum that I couldn’t play, that when I lifted my legs up to kick the ball, ‘you can see everything’, or that I might get hurt. My mum just said, ‘You let her play and if something happens to her, let me know’. “A lot of the girls who played with me didn’t have the support of their parents,” continued Salas. “If you’re a girl and your parents don’t take you, don’t give you the money to go or don’t defend you, then it’s very tough. Things have changed a bit now, and there are even football academies for girls.” An out-and-out finisher who is strong in the air and has a nose for goal, Salas named Cristiano Ronaldo as her role model: “We have similar styles. When I was growing up I identified with Alex Morgan and Shirley Cruz, who I admire as a player and a person after spending time with her in the national team.”

Costa Rica forward Maria Paula Salas

Salas made her first division debut at the age of 14 with Deportivo Saprissa, before moving to Liga Deportiva Alajuelense in 2019. Opportunities to move to France and Spain then arose before the pandemic and a shoulder injury – now resolved thanks to surgery – forced her to put those plans on hold. “I got the green light from the doctors a month ago, and now I just want to focus on my club and the national team and play at the World Cup,” explained Salas, who has nine senior caps and two goals to her name, one of them coming at the 2019 Pan American Games, where she helped her side win bronze. Her other goal in life is to be a role model herself for every girl, who, like her, just loves kicking a ball around: “Both the ones who are here and the ones playing abroad want more girls to feel that it’s normal to play football. We want them to be like us. They shouldn’t think that it’s just for boys. We’re all thinking about things that are bigger than our own careers.”

The road to Costa Rica 2022

Salas’ story could easily be taken from the #WeBelong campaign that Concacaf launched in August and which invites stakeholders of the women’s game to share their stories of success, achievement, and inspiration. “The message behind We Belong transcends football and it aims to empower women and girls, change cultural norms, and create opportunities for them,” said former Canada goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc, now Head of Concacaf Women’s Football. The campaign will take in the first phase of the Concacaf U-20 Women’s Championships. Held in Curacao between 13 and 17 September, this initial phase will be contested by 13 teams drawn into four groups, the winners of which will advance to the knockout phase. Group A: Bermuda, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Dominica, US Virgin Islands Group B: Cayman Islands, Anguilla, Martinique Group C: St. Lucia, Antigua and Barbuda, Curaçao Group D: Grenada, Suriname, Belize The other phases of the Concacaf U-20 Women’s Championships, which will see three teams qualify for Costa Rica 2022, are as follows:

  • Group phase (first three months of 2022): 16 teams drawn into four groups, with the top three in each (12 teams in all) advancing.

  • Knockout phase (first three months of 2022): the 16 surviving teams play single knockout matches (round of 16, quarter-finals, semi-finals and final). The champions, runners-up and third-placed team qualify for the World Cup.