How Colombia's Success Could Spur Philosophical Change At Home

EDMONTON, Alberta -- Gisela Arrieta surely wasn't the only girl who ever sneaked out of the house to follow her heart against the wishes of a disapproving father. Odds are she wasn't even the only daughter assisted in such subterfuge by her mother, one parent seeing in the burgeoning relationship what the other refused to acknowledge.

It's just that, in Arrieta's case, the object of her affection was a sport her father didn't think she should play. In Colombia, he wasn't alone.

Arrieta watched with the rest of the soccer world as Colombia pulled off the most significant upset in the group stage of the World Cup, a 2-0 win June 13 in Moncton against a French team that entered the event as one of the tournament favorites after semifinal appearances in the 2011 World Cup and 2012 Olympics marked its place among the sport's elite. But she watched not as an outsider rooting for Cinderella but as someone who knew no wand was waved to create that moment. The players on the field were her friends and until recently her teammates.

Now an assistant soccer coach at Graceland University, an NAIA school in Iowa that is also her alma mater, and a Colombian international at the under-20 and senior levels, she was one of the last cuts from the team that eventually traveled to Canada and advanced to the knockout phase from Group F.

"They deserved that," Arrieta said by phone Saturday of the win against France. "They've been working hard, and they want to prove to people that they are there not just to participate but also they are there to compete.

"I was impressed and proud at the same time at what they did with the type of training -- we didn't get that much help back home to get this team prepared for this kind of event."

That event brings them to Edmonton for Monday's knockout game against the United States. It is the third consecutive major tournament in which the two countries will meet, but group games won by the Americans in the previous World Cup and Olympics did not come with the luminosity of the spotlight that will shine on Commonwealth Stadium.

It is the most consequential game in the history of the Colombian women's program, and it comes a little more than a week after its most notable win.

What isn't clear, what might not even be clear if Colombia doubles down on its Cinderella success and stuns the favorite, is whether we are watching a moment or a sea change.

With the exception of Brazil, which has its own unsteady relationship with a sport it once outlawed for women but which followed Marta's lead to international relevance, the South American continent on which the men's game is such a substantial part of the culture has not only failed to produce comparable women's success but actively discouraged the growth of the game across the gender line. Soccer remains a man's world. So, does Colombia's success come in spite of that history or herald changing times?

"I see it changing a lot," Colombia goalkeeper Catalina Perez said of women's soccer in her country. "In the past few years, it has been very difficult and it has been something that wasn't seen too much. But I feel like we're opening up a new path for that, for all of soccer to grow in Colombia. So I feel like it's more than just a game to us, especially because we could be the generation that really makes soccer acceptable and brings a lot of opportunities to Colombian girls."

Difficult is something of an understatement.

Arrieta's mother would surreptitiously pack her daughter's backpack full of soccer gear and provide a cover story for where the girl was going, which was in fact off to play in pickup soccer games. Among the players on the World Cup roster, defender Orianica Velasquez was spotted by the national program only when she appeared on a Colombian television drama portraying a soccer-playing girl. Goalkeeper Stefany Castano, who started the World Cup opener against Mexico and will likely start against the United States on Monday because of the suspension of Sandra Sepulveda for accumulated yellow cards, arrived in Iowa as a 16-year-old college freshman at Graceland.

Colombia is, through those stories, a wonderful example of passion and perseverance paid in full. The journeys many of its players made to Canada are remarkable.

It probably also needs to be less of a great story to be more of a contender. It shouldn't be this difficult.

This is not a Latin American problem as much as a problem that is still prevalent in many Latin American countries. As many people, including the U.S. coach who will be in the other technical area in Monday's quarterfinal can attest, we are not long removed from a time when girls were discouraged from playing soccer in England. It wasn't until Jill Ellis moved to the United States as a teenager that the future coach of that country's national team even had an opportunity to play organized soccer.

"I honestly knew that I wasn't going to play football at any kind of serious level because it just wasn't an option," Ellis said.

Raised in England in the same era, former Indiana University women's soccer coach Mick Lyon, who recruited Velasquez, played on a youth team that included a girl. The experience was so much an exception to the rule as to linger in his memory decades later.

"Football and girls just didn't go together," Lyon recalled of the prevailing wisdom at the time.

Few would paint a picture of perfect harmony in England even now, but there is a professional league that increasingly merits the aforementioned adjective and a national team that seeks a second consecutive quarterfinal appearance. And as the surface on which the games are played in this World Cup suggests, cultural evolution is a global process.

Times change. Cultures change. People change them, if only gradually.

Now the coach at LaGrange College, former Graceland coach Fred Wagenaar had a roster that in 2012 included four players from Colombia, including Arrieta and Castano, and two each from Mexico and Venezuela. Arrieta and Castano eventually became assistant coaches at the school. Castano, Wagenaar said, was always the first to show up ahead of practice and the last to leave after it was over, her purpose belying her youth. Off the field, she was lighthearted. Soccer was different.

"It's a truism I guess -- it's simply in their blood," Wagenaar said. "They grow up with it. They go to the park, there's constant pickup games that you can go to. Almost any time night or day, you can walk around and find a pickup soccer game. That's their sport. They love it."

Yet many young women like Velasquez and Castano have to leave a country obsessed with soccer to have the best opportunity to keep playing themselves.

"I left home looking for an opportunity to play a high level soccer and get an education," Velasquez wrote in an email Sunday of attending Indiana.

For Arrieta, one particular new sensation resonated when she first began training with her college team in the United States.

"That feeling, it makes you feel great that somebody cares about your work as an athlete," she said.

Colombia has in many ways gone about building a women's program in a way that suggests a seriousness of purpose, which is to say slowly. Many of the players on the current team were part of the youth team that drew against Canada and Denmark in the 2008 Under-17 World Cup. They helped Colombia finish second in its group in the 2010 Under-20 World Cup, then beat Sweden in the knockout phase to reach the semifinals. They gained experience in the 2011 World Cup, Colombia's first, and the 2012 Olympics.

At the same time, few players can concentrate solely on soccer, and there is no viable professional league. The preparation for the World Cup included only a handful of games since qualifying last fall, something to which Velasquez alluded when she wrote that the team needed to play more often. And Colombia coach Fabian Taborda estimated the total number of women's soccer players in the country at only a few thousand.

Colombia might have the skill to play with France or the United States on a given day, but it is not yet playing the same game as those national programs.

Arrieta's father has long since come around to his daughter's love for the game. It makes her feel good now when he brags about her to his friends. And although she won't be there Monday night, her omission still a raw wound, she knows what it will feel like when the players hear their national anthem.

"That's the best feeling in the world when you are out there standing, wearing the jersey of your country," Arrieta said. "It makes you feel proud because not too many players have an opportunity to be in that position. It is the 20 best players in your country, so it's a great feeling for any athlete who reaches that level."

It will be a moment none of them will soon forget. It remains to be seen whether this is the moment things change for a culture.

"I think that this will make people realize that women's soccer is a reality," Arrieta said. "That we have a bright future."