Catalina Pérez interview: ¡De Colombia al mundo! – ‘Bienvenida a Bremen’ for Werder’s World Cup keeper

Photo: SV Werder Bremen

She was the last line of an unflinching Colombia defence as her team grasped its greatest FIFA Women’s World Cup run yet. A few months on, goalkeeper Catalina Pérez has been playing to that same theme of a daring new step.

Latin music is a world where Colombians sit right alongside those enjoying the view from the top. From the already-colossal reach of Latin pop, reggaetón and various música urbana offshoots, the enormity of international crossover success by the likes of Shakira, J Balvin, Maluma and Karol G has only furthered their position among today’s most globally-influential artists.

If music is an unstoppable force in illuminating Colombia’s creative excellence, last year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup arrived with their national team harbouring the same desire to wave the yellow-blue-and-red ‘tricolor’ up high. To describe that desire as yearning, after eight years of waiting for another chance in the competition, would be no overstatement at all.

What followed was the team’s best showing yet, but while their history-making efforts took them to the quarter-final, it was the second group game that had them shaking the World Cup party like a thousand pounding picós in the streets back home. Manuela Vanegas’ 97th-minute winner against tournament tips Germany unleashed a bigger emotional avalanche than a vallenato song, for players, staff, and the masses of Colombia supporters in Sydney’s Allianz Stadium.

The defender’s header into the bottom corner put the crowning moment (2-1) on a collective performance steeped in tenacity, togetherness, and touches of undeniable class.

“Together as a team, we’ve been working for so, so many years to be ambassadors for Colombia, not just football players,” says Catalina Pérez, the team’s goalkeeper that night. “To change people’s perception of Colombia, in general, and of Colombian women’s football.”

Those wider preconceptions, and the resulting limitations often placed from outside on a proud, captivating nation, are hard to avoid. On the field, the team emphatically put any misgivings about their play aside, showcasing the best of their rugged resolve, and the beauty behind any brawn.

That could never have been more sumptuously captured than when 18-year-old Linda Caicedo conjured up one of the tournament’s all-time outstanding goals to open the scoring against Germany, improbably dazzling her way between two defenders and lifting an unreachable finish into the far corner. Such a masterclass in movement may have been an extraordinarily-elite example, but in a collective sense, they are a team that typically spends most of their time under a rhythmic spell.

With music one of their foremost unifying factors, a salsa-laden step might even be considered mandatory, as their number one suggests.

“It’s huge,” says goalkeeper Cata. “It’s a huge part of our culture, obviously in Colombia, and also in our team culture.”

“Wherever we go, we take the boombox! So, it’s always a lot of fun, it’s always loud, we always have salsa, merengue – if you can’t dance there, you can’t be part of the team!

“But you have to try.”

While the infectious ‘Estamos Melos’ by Medellín artist Bomby (featuring Donkirap) was the pace-setting anthem of choice for the men’s team at the 2018 World Cup, Cata reveals who had a helping hand in their historic run last year.

“I mean, the team loves Karol G! We would play her all the time, but also the typical salsa artists are always on the playlist.

“(The team DJ is) mostly Cata Usme, or the ones from Cali, the ones that are the best salsa dancers; they’ll put their salsa on and they dance, almost every day! It’s definitely so nice to be around that, because it just brings another mood and atmosphere.

“Dancing together and having those moments has really bonded us as a team, and as a family. The culture of the national team just really resonates, and I think it grows on all of us.”

It has been life in a different key for Cata since last summer. Having featured in 2023 for Avaí/Kindermann, the 29-year-old has swapped southern Brazil for northern Germany, becoming a Werder Bremen player in August.

Her switch to the Frauen-Bundesliga also follows time in Italy (Napoli) and Spain (Real Betis) in recent years. Bogotá-born but Boca Raton, Florida-raised from the age of four, moving overseas is by now somewhat routine, though every new country has its surprises.

Along with an introduction to Germany’s top division, Bremen has also brought a first encounter with…schlager music.

“Oh, yeah, the traditional? I think mostly around the fair (Freimarkt) here in October, around that time, they were more in the mood to play schlager!

“I think (in the locker room, it’s) mostly German and English songs. Mostly German, of course, but some English, and if I connect my phone, then some of my Latin tastes come out!”

As a club overall, Werder has been made all the better for its South American flavour down the years. The men’s team’s historic 2004 league-and-cup double coincided with a golden time in the career of enigmatic Brazilian forward Aílton – the wonderfully-nicknamed ‘Kugelblitz’ (ball lightning) – while compatriot Diego was a creative and goalscoring force from midfield later that decade.

Cata, meanwhile, has not been the only Colombian flying the flag at the Green-Whites this season, with frontman Rafael Santos Borré on loan from Eintracht Frankfurt. The women’s side is a largely homegrown one at present, though Cata is joined in the goalkeeping ranks by another international, in Switzerland’s Livia Peng.

The women’s team has split time between the top two leagues during the past decade, but after their highest finish last season (8th), they headed into the recent Winterpause one place higher. Off the field, Cata has been absorbing the charm of her new city.

“Yeah, it’s very different! It’s cool to discover a new place, and it’s cool that it’s a city but it’s not huge, so you have everything that you need and that you want, but it’s also homey.

“The centre, some parts, they just look so historic and beautiful that walking through there is special.”

In the midst of a German winter, Palm Beach County and the Florida warmth she grew up in certainly feels far off. Music now offers frequent connection to her Colombian roots, no matter where she is in the world, but for those who move countries during childhood, finding pieces of belonging and familiarity is not often seamless.

Cata remembers one of her favourite events from some years later, in which those elements came to life in full colour.

“When I lived in Miami, there was a concert with all the Hispanic artists, and that was really nice, just to see them all in one concert. There’s so many good Colombian artists, and it’s cool to know that we come from the same country.

“There’s so many things in their songs that make references to things that are a part of my life, you know? Or talk about cities in Colombia that you can relate to; it’s always so nice.”

Recalling a Black Eyed Peas concert she also enjoyed, her listening choices growing up did not always come with free will! She is asked if she remembers the first album or single she bought.

“My brother and I shared a computer, so I guess it was mostly his music, his rules, his everything!”

When the Werder women’s team played at Weserstadion (regular home venue of the men’s team) in October, 21,508 were there to witness a 3-0 win over FC Köln. The all-time artist Cata would most like to see in concert actually performed at that same stadium – on the ‘Dangerous’ and ‘HIStory’ world tours of 1992 and 1997.

“I think it would be cool to see Michael Jackson, just because he was such a performer.”

Cata’s own path to the global stage could never be described as smooth. Prior to her senior year of college at Mississippi State, she had played at the University of Miami, though would redshirt her sophomore season (2014) with an ACL tear (the same injury she would overcome four years later).

It was during that period that she would undertake a Master of Business Administration (MBA). It may be difficult to believe now that the starting goalkeeper in Colombia’s 2023 World Cup had to wait until her mid-20s to become a full-time professional player (with Napoli in 2020, after the pandemic scuppered her Fiorentina move).

Harder still to comprehend, perhaps, is that she had effectively stepped away from playing altogether not long before. Working in Santander Bank in Boston, she was later tempted back onto the field with New England Mutiny of the semi-pro United Women’s Soccer.

She shares her memories of Boston, including a firsthand feel of Massachusetts at its most ‘wicked cool’.

“I thought it was a beautiful city; definitely prepared me for this cold!” she laughs, while trying to warm up in a large, padded team coat after Werder’s outdoor training session. “And was the first time I was exposed to seasons!”

“It was definitely a good experience for me, and a good preparation to experience seasons more, because I grew up in Florida and we have no seasons, and in Colombia, we have no seasons as well. So, at 24, it was the first time I got to see all the four seasons!”

Long before her move to Bremen, Cata spent several weeks in Germany, at the 2010 FIFA Under-20 Women’s World Cup. At just 15, she was the youngest member of a Colombia squad that took fourth place, in a tournament won by the Alexandra Popp-fuelled hosts.

Part of that team alongside fellow 2023 World Cup players Lady Andrade, captain Daniela Montoya, and Carolina Arias, her international career has played out in the company of many she has grown up in football with. Which of those, however, would she have enough trust in to record a song with?

“That’s a tough one! Maybe Cata Usme?

“I’ve never heard her sing or anything, but I just think she’s a fun, cool person.”

Game-winning goalscorer against Jamaica in the World Cup round of 16, forward Usme was vice-captain at the Colombian-hosted Copa América in 2022, as the home team finished runners-up. Between the posts, Cata was another ever-present, culminating in the final with Brazil (a 1-0 loss) in Bucaramanga, at a full, 28,000-capacity Estadio Afonso López.

The sea of yellow Colombia shirts in the stadium that night would become a memorable feature in Australia a year later. While they were rightly dreaming of the incredible when Leicy Santos put them 1-0 up against England in the World Cup quarter-final, they bowed out of the competition at the conclusion of that game with genuine adventure to look back on.

A 2-0 win over Korea Republic had been the perfect start, with dreamland to follow after the aforementioned second match, against Germany. Cata shares her recollections of the game plan for what would become a famous night.

“Just staying true to our identity, and playing to our strengths, so to really stay together, to be compact. I think what we mostly talked about was that unity and being that family out there, and fighting for each other with everything we had.

“Those individualities come out even more if we supported each other and just committed to the game plan, and to the team.”

The 2-1 result was reward for unwavering endeavour, epitomised by the tireless running of number nine Mayra Ramírez after 95 minutes, leading to the corner from which Manuela Vanegas scored. In the hours that followed, was there any energy left for Cata and others to celebrate, back at the team hotel?

“To be honest, we stayed focused, because in like 72 hours, we had another game (against Morocco). We enjoyed it but stayed very focused on the rest of the World Cup, because we knew that we had more things to do.”

They would be celebrating after that next game, qualifying with Morocco despite a 1-0 loss, in which Cata had impressively saved a penalty from Moroccan captain Ghizlane Chebbak, only for Anissa Lahmari to eventually force the ball over the line. Plaudits for Colombia’s play went hand in hand with the widespread admiration for the fervent crowds backing them at each game.

At her second senior World Cup, Cata had loved ones present among the masses of support.

“There’s always Colombians everywhere, but when we were going to the stadiums, when we would drive up and see all those Colombians, all those yellow shirts, that was incredible. So many people who went all the way there, stuff like that where we were blown away and really appreciated it.

“Sometimes they would come to the hotel, to the outside, and cheer us on as we would go in. Our coach (Nelson Abadía) had us very focused, so we couldn’t hang out with them or anything, but with our families, thankfully I had my mom, my dad and my brother there, and my brother’s wife.

“So, so nice to have them there, and we could see them 48 hours before a game for a little bit, so we would relish those moments to be with our families. Just knowing they were in the stadium, or being able to give them a hug afterwards, is priceless.”

The progression and magic moments at the tournament were even more significant to their players – past and present – who lived through the fight for basic standards and respect. While success shines a light on a national team, those who were there previously remember all too well what it was like to be left in the dark.

For Cata and the current squad, the push for greater will continue.

“For the younger generations coming up, (we want) to really create better things for them, and more opportunities overseas. More opportunities for the national team so we can get more support and grow, and be top in the world.

“That’s definitely our goal, and I think it’s always been so special to be part of a group of women that have such big goals and are committed to being the best that we can be, together. I’ve been part of the national team since I was 14, so it’s been 15 years!

“It’s crazy to see all the things that have changed and how things have improved for us; how much the Colombian people are supporting and are moved by the women’s game, and going to the stadiums and everything. The development of women’s soccer in Colombia is growing so much, so seeing all that is definitely very rewarding and very motivating.

“We just hope that continues to grow so that we can get a league that goes all year round in Colombia, not just a few months, because that makes it difficult. We’ve come a long way and we know that we have a longer way to go.

“We’re just pushing and fighting.”

Having overcome injury earlier in the season, Cata made her second league start in Werder Bremen’s final game of 2023, a 1-0 defeat at leaders Wolfsburg on 18th December. While pursuing the regular starting role, she has also stopped to savour being part of a club offering worthy infrastructure.

“I think Germany is extremely impressive and cool in that aspect; it’s all just very well organised, very well run. The conditions are very good, the facilities.

“It’s definitely a blessing to be able to wake up and train at such a facility. I wanted to come back to Europe, or the NWSL (U.S.), but I enjoy being in Europe very much, just for how it forms you, in football but also other areas of life.”

Ahead of her festive break with family, she had begun December with two international friendly games against New Zealand in Bogotá (starting both a 0-0 draw and 1-0 win). Whether Bogotá or Bremen, South Florida or Sydney, the energy she gleans from carrying Colombian pride with her around the world is immense, and the honour immeasurable.

For the keeper with the tricolor soul, nothing brings that to life as instantly or as evocatively as the pastime that has now become her off-field favourite.

“Listening to music, to be honest! That’s grown in my life because of my national team, teammates, and just seeing how much sometimes music can make you feel at home when you’re so far away, or just finding songs that you can relate to.

“The fact that there’s so many good Colombian artists is also just so great, because they’re so popular, so you find them easily. They’re great reminders of home, and of nice moments that I’ve been able to live with the national team, or with my family.

“So…I really enjoy music!”

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