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Realising my potential

"Football has shown me for the first time in my life that I have a talent and a gift"

The first time I ever kicked a ball was four years ago. That’s all it took. I was hooked.  Football has shown me for the first time in my life that I have a talent and a gift. It makes me feel I can achieve anything I set my mind to. This is the story of how I discovered my gift.

My name is Natalia, I’m 15 years old and a Young Leader at Tiempo de Juego in my hometown of Santa Marta in Colombia.

Gender equality, access to adequate education, violence and drug abuse are issues all over Latin America. Santa Marta is no different. It’s particularly bad in school where gender violence is all too common.

Even a women’s right to play football is not always recognised. A lot of the boys here think football is just a man’s game. It is not easy for girls to find a club to play for and, if they do, the men’s team is always given priority.

When you live in this type of situation, it’s hard to not get caught up in it. Sometimes I would come to sport class and start arguing and, at times, fight with the other kids. It was not a healthy way to be and I did not like the the person who I was at that time. But this all changed after I started attending the football school run by Tiempo de Juego.

It is an organisation that helps all kinds of people to overcome bad social situations in their communities through football and other activities. They put a lot of emphasis on education and explain if we want to be successful, we have to stay in school and work hard. At Tiempo de Juego, the young people learn how to have a positive impact within their society and, most importantly, how to feel better about themselves.

Alongside my football practices, I took part in the Young Leaders training programme, which enables younger members of the community, like me, to support the organisation and train younger participants. Once I took up my role as a Young Leader I started to get more and more involved with Tiempo de Juego and plan for my future. Thanks to my coach Catalina and the other teachers at the organisation, I realised that if I wanted to make something happen, I needed to work for it. That has stayed with me until this day.

After playing at Tiempo de Juego, I realised that a lot of the kids around me looked up to me and I would have to change my attitude completely if I wanted to be a positive role model for them. Now I come to classes and help the teacher. I always make sure to behave well and try to give the young kids someone positive to look up to. I now give classes to the young kids myself. I teach the kids to express their opinions in a positive way without criticizing others. Just as I try to be a role model and inspiration to other kids, my coach Catalina, as a professional player for Unión Magdalena, is a huge inspiration to me. She shows me what you can achieve in Santa Marta despite the way women are treated.

Without the support of my coaches I would never have been put forward to represent Santa Marta in “supérate”, which is a state-run programme where kids can obtain scholarships through their academic performance. I won a scholarship which means I can play football at the national level while still being able to play for my local team. Winning this scholarship was proof that I can be a good student despite all adversity I have faced growing up in a deprived area and because of my gender. 

Tiempo de Juego has supported me in so many ways: paying for my school uniforms and for me to travel to school and matches. But more than material things, at Tiempo de Juego I have found a place to meet boys and girls my age who have become my friends. We really look after each other, just like a family. The support network that it has created is so important because ultimately, we all just want to become better and have the opportunity to grow and develop.

My ultimate dream is to be a professional footballer and one day pull on the famous yellow jersey for the national team.  Last week I trained at a football academy and they selected me for their under-20 team – and I’m only 15 years old!  This was a really proud moment for me as I felt all my hard work had paid off and was being acknowledged.  I don’t care what position the coaches ask me to play because I will play anywhere for my team. I think to be a champion you need to have courage and be able to deal with anything life throws your way. I want to be a champion and do whatever it takes to keep on inspiring others to realise their potential and be the best they can be.