American teen starring for Brazil U-20 women's team
AO PAULO, Brazil -- An American teenager is making a splash in Brazilian women's soccer.
Leah Lynn Gabriela Fortune, a 17-year-old who speaks very little Portuguese and goes to school in the United States, is attracting a lot of attention as a member of Brazil's Under-20 squad.
Not only is Fortune an American playing for Brazil, she also uses a novel throw-in move that has made the highlight reels in sports shows across Brazil.
To the delight of fans, Fortune has in her bag of tricks the flip throw, in which she does a front flip with the ball in her hands and can propel it some 30 meters and into the penalty area.
Though she's playing for Brazil in the South American Under-20 championships this week, she can also represent the United States and is a member of the U.S. Olympic Development Program.
The green-eyed blonde has dual citizenship after being born in Brazil to American parents.
Fortune has until she's 21 to decide which national team she prefers, but for now she has no doubt.
"I just love Brazil and I love Brazilian soccer," Fortune told the Associated Press on Wednesday in a telephone interview. "The style and the coaches are great and all the girls are amazing. They bring so much energy into the game. It's been an incredible experience to play with Brazil's Under-20 team."
Fortune has started for the tournament host, which has won its initial four matches by outscoring opponents 22-0. Brazil has reached the final round with Argentina, Chile and Paraguay. The final is on Sunday, with the top two teams advancing to the world championships.
Fortune developed her flip throw with the help of skills learned as a young gymnast. Against Paraguay, she catapulted the ball more than 20 yards to the edge of the penalty box, it was deflected back by another Brazilian player and striker Pamela headed it in from close range to help Brazil win 5-0.
The image was a highlight on most Brazilian sports shows.
"I do a front handspring with the ball to get more distance and more force," she said.
Fans love the play, and it has made Fortune one of the team's most popular players. After every match, she is quickly surrounded by kids requesting autographs.
"I'm just glad to be in the position I'm in right now," she said.
Fortune was born in 1990, when her parents lived in Sao Paulo. The family moved back to Chicago when she was 2, and she has returned to Brazil sporadically.
She visited as part of the Team Chicago soccer program, but Brazilian coaches noticed Fortune's talent when she came for a tournament with the U.S. Olympic Development Program in March 2007, and immediately invited her to play for Brazil.
"I was definitely excited when they told me," she said. "I knew it was an amazing opportunity."
Alexandre Mathias, director of Team Chicago Brasil, an affiliate of the U.S. program, said Fortune's physical strength sets her apart in the Brazilian Under-20s. Normally a striker, Fortune has been playing at left back for Brazil.
"She has great speed and great power," Mathias said. "She can shoot well with both legs."
Brazil has never had a foreigner playing in the senior women's team, but it wouldn't be the first time Americans played for other international teams.
"We have had some playing for Italy, Ireland, New Zealand, Mexico and Canada," said Aaron Heifetz, the media officer for the U.S. women's national team.
Fortune still goes to school in the United States, so she cannot commit to Brazilian soccer full-time. She said she will "keep coming back" to play whenever she is called up for the national team because one of her dreams is to play for Brazil in an Olympics or World Cup.
Fortune, a fan of two-time FIFA player of the year Marta, is yet to master Portuguese, the country's official language, but says she has learned enough "to talk to the girls and figure out what they are saying."
"They are all very helpful, I can't thank them enough," she said.
The Brazilians are just as grateful to her.