- Tested by tragedy, Esperanza Pizarro has come through valiantly
- Striker was key in Uruguay's quest for Costa Rica/Panama 2020
- Pizarro scored Goal of the Tournament at the 2018 FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup
"After my mother died, I didn't want to play anymore or even travel to Montevideo... But my sisters convinced me to go back, and my team-mates helped enormously."
The words are those of Esperanza Pizarro and the sad tale she shared with FIFA.com was deeply moving. Back in February, just days before she was due to join up with the Uruguay national team as they prepared for the South American U-20 Women's Championship, tragedy struck when her mother was killed in a traffic accident.
"I thought about walking away, I couldn't find the will to continue. A week passed and I had to decide whether or not to join the squad," the 18-year striker told us.
"Then my sisters reminded me of everything Mom had done so I could make it as a player. She really enjoyed watching me play football and score goals, which I’d often dedicate to her. That's where I got the strength to join up with the squad."
Once there, her team-mates all welcomed her with open arms. "They looked after me and cheered me up if I was sad. Even now, they still write to me to see how I am. They were also very important."
Pizarro responded to this outpouring of affection in the way she knows best – by contributing seven goals to fire Uruguay to second place in Group B behind Brazil and thus advance to the final phase of the South American U-20 Championship for the first time in their history.
The regional tournament, in which she was leading scorer, was then postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, requiring the final phase to be played at a later date to determine the region’s two berths at the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup Costa Rica/Panama 2020.
Perseverance her middle name
Esperanza is not someone who can be easily dissuaded once she sets her mind to something. "When I was four and regularly going with my mum to the butcher’s, I announced I wanted to be a butcher; when we went to the fruit and veg shop, I wanted to be a greengrocer. Then one day we were watching football, and I told my parents I wanted to be a footballer. 'When you turn five,' they replied."
"A year later I reminded my mom, 'I'm old enough now, so take me'." And so off went Claudia to find her a club around Palmira – despite her husband not being very keen on the idea.
"There was no women’s football scene, and they said no I couldn’t join because I was a girl – until one club finally allowed me to play with their boys’ team. It wasn't easy: either they left me out or tackled me extra hard because I was a girl. But I improved, and they got used to having me around and I became just another player."
Shortly afterwards, a women's team was set up in Carmelo, half an hour away by bus, and her mother began taking her there. Esperanza played in goal and central midfield before finally settling on an attacking role thanks to her skill, speed and keen eye for goal.
La Celeste pin hopes
Pizarro would go on to hone her skills with Uruguay’s various youth teams. At 14 she played the first of her four South American Championships, before being part of the team that, as hosts, competed at the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup 2018.
And while Uruguay did not progress beyond the group stage on home soil, Esperanza had the consolation of scoring the Goal of the Tournament against Finland with her mother watching from the stands.
That squad now forms the nucleus of the U-20 team that are very much in contention for a place at this year’s World Cup, after recording three wins and one defeat in the opening phase.
"A lot of credit must go to Ariel Long. Since she was appointed, all the women's teams have progressed by focusing on our work. That World Cup helped us to gain experience to bring to the under-20s and indeed the senior team," insisted Pizarro, who has already debuted with the senior national team.
The authority with which Uruguay advanced to the final phase of the U-20 Sudamericano came as no surprise to the forward. "I knew we could finish second to Brazil, who are a level above us."
On her return from the truncated tournament in Argentina, the player was quarantined in Montevideo, where she is self-isolating at the home of her team-mate Valentina Morales. Determined to take something positive from the postponement, the player said, "it will allow us to better analyse our opponents, assess our own shortcomings and correct mistakes."
What has come as a surprise, though, is to find herself leading the scoring charts at the tournament. "As a goal scorer, you hope for that, but I wasn’t expecting it. I’ve scored quite a few times in Sudamericanos over the years but have never top-scored."
In the current edition, Pizarro has already racked up two hat-tricks. If she could manage one more she would match the feat of Marta, to date the only player to score three trebles at a South American Championship in this age category. "It would be an honour because she is the standard bearer for me. Do you know how hard it is to achieve what she did coming from South America?"
Still, the Uruguayan was keen to clarify that "the main goal is World Cup qualification. Everything else can wait".
Even plying her trade overseas? "I already had a trial with Internacional in Brazil and returned. In addition, I’ve signed for Club Nacional and started studying physiotherapy," explained Pizarro, the first female player to sign a professional contract in Uruguay.
Having done all that at just 18 years old, she is already a role model for other women footballers in her country. "Maybe one day that will sink in. Right now, I don't think I'm any different from anyone else and just do my own thing."