A few weeks ago, Celia Jiménez Delgado was scrolling through Instagram when a new message popped into her inbox. Delgado, a defender for the Spanish national team and Reign FC, opened it to see a note from a young girl in Spain.
The girl had bought the Panini collectible Women’s World Cup book, which you can fill with stickers representing each player on the Spanish national team. In the first package of stickers the girl had purchased, she’d gotten Delgado’s picture.
“She was so excited that she got me,” Delgado said. “She was like, ‘This is the first time I bought it, and I got you.’ I thought it was so cute, but it also means we’re changing reality. This book they do for the men’s World Cup every year, but a few years ago this was not a thing for the women. … To have kids, especially girls, that are excited to buy it and look at the national team and be like, ‘oh my gosh, I want to be like that – that just says we’re doing something right.”
Delgado and Spain began their 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup journey with a 3-1 win over South Africa Saturday. The teams are in Group B with China and Germany.
Delgado, who played in the last World Cup in 2015 at age 19, has watched women’s soccer in her home country grow over the past few years. Seeing her and her teammates’ faces on stickers sold in stores – for a book typically dedicated to men’s players – was maybe the most visible reminder of how far the country has come.
When Delgado was young herself, Spain wasn’t exactly the friendliest place for girls in sports. But luckily, she had a strong female figure in her life, as well as a tenacity that vaulted her to the Spanish national program.
“It was a ‘guy’s sport,’ and girls were never supposed to play soccer,” Delgado said. “I always had to fight against that. … I was the only girl that played on the boys’ teams. I have to say I was really lucky and thankful that my family always supported me, especially my mom. She also grew up in Spain in a time where gender equality wasn’t as big as it is now, and she never thought that something was not meant for her just because she was a woman.”
Delgado has taken that family trait and applied it on the soccer field – the defender earned a spot on the 2015 Spanish team that was the first from their country to ever qualify for a World Cup. She started all three matches of Spain’s tournament.
Delgado also has a bit of a rebellious streak when it comes to the career she wants to pursue after her playing days are over. She went to school at the University of Alabama for aerospace engineering. It’s another field in which women are in the minority – but Delgado has always been about fighting the gravity of a status quo.
Instead of staying in her home Spain or venturing into other European countries, Delgado wanted to come to the United States for school and for soccer. She wanted to play with the best in the world, and she saw the National Women’s Soccer League as that opportunity.
“Since I came to the U.S. to go to college, it was my dream (to play in the NWSL),” she said. “It’s the most competitive league. If I want to get better and grow as a player, this is where I wanted to play.”
Delgado is taking what she’s learned from her time in the NWSL to this summer’s World Cup. It’s not often that a 23-year-old enters the tournament with previous World Cup experience, but she’ll have that, too. That goes for Delgado and the rest of the Spanish team, which has now qualified for two World Cups after never making a tournament prior to 2015.
“We knew [in 2015] what our style was, what our philosophy was, but maybe we lacked a little bit of experience when it came down to game management, when to speed up the game, when to break the rhythm and slow things down,” Delgado said. “Since that experience, I’ve learned a lot about game management, so for this next World Cup in France, we’re a lot more prepared.”