Marta’s Moment and the Future of Women’s Soccer in Brazil

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When Pia Sundhage’s Swedish side, playing their conservative game, knocked the fan favorites out of the tournament in front of 78,000 fans at Maracaña stadium in a heartbreaking semifinal that went into penalty kicks in spite of Brazil outshooting Sweden 33 to 6, the world of soccer wept for Marta and her team.

This is a woman who, in spite of being despised by many in the world for leaving her place of birth to pursue the game in Sweden, represents her homeland with dignity, takes the victories however ‘small’ they seem in a male-dominated society, and when needed loses with grace and sincerity. Recall the crumpled facade of Messi at the Copa America earlier this summer upon Argentina’s defeat to Chile. Recall Hope Solo’s controversial reaction to the USWNT’s loss to Sweden earlier. And now recall Marta’s words on Tuesday.

Speaking after the defeat to Sweden, Marta vowed, “this loss won’t take away from all that we have done to get here. We have the match for the bronze medal now and we will fight until the end to get that medal. We have to pick up the pieces to try to win this medal.”

She grew up playing soccer in Dois Riachos, about 1,250 miles north of Rio de Janeiro. She played with the boys.

“My biggest battle was to fight against prejudice. Some kids didn’t like the idea of a girl playing with them, and I got a lot of verbal abuse. But, at the same time, I was never the last pick when they were choosing teams, so that was a sign to me that I was on the right path,” Marta reminisces.

At the age of 14, she left home to earn a spot on Vasco de Gama’s women’s side, and by the age of 16, was on the U-19 national team. Her first international appearance where she gained notoriety was at the 2002 U-19 World Cup in which she and her teammates reached the semifinals before Canada defeated them in penalty kicks.

Marta Viera da Silva was just 17 when she played in the the 2003 Women’s World Cup in the United States. Afterwards she set her sights abroad. “Some clubs in Brazil have men’s teams, but there are no regular championships, so I had to move to Europe. It’s a huge sacrifice to live far away from my family, but it was my only option in order to develop my pro career.”

She’s scored 104 goals, 15 of which are World Cup goals, has 10 Olympics goals and at the age of 30, she’s appearing in a match against Canada for the honor of earning a Bronze medal in her own country.

Marta hadn’t played in the hallowed Maracana since the 2007 Pan American Games Final when the Brazilian women won 5-0 against a U.S. U-20 team coached by Jill Ellis in front of about 70,000 roaring fans.

This will not be the highest pinnacle the Brazilian women have reached in Olympic history. They’ve already played in the final in 2004 and 2008. Yet the silver medals were not enough to convince the Brazilian soccer federation and fans to support the growth of the women’s program. One wonders what a bronze medal tomorrow will achieve. The world, however, is watching closely. Brazil’s soccer fanatics are also watching but with a purpose – they’ve been comparing, contrasting, debating and cautiously leaning their support either to the men or to the women. When one falls, the passion drops onto the other. The balance has now tilted back towards the men as Neymar and his team are rebounding. Why one or the other? Why did a headline read “They Played Like Marta” referring to the Brazilian men’s win over Honduras? In a nation where soccer is found on the streets, the parks, the beaches, the rooftops and all around, there could be more than enough support to go around.

“We don’t have the same situation compared to the U.S., Sweden, Canada, Japan, France or Germany. In the schools we don’t teach soccer for girls. There are very rare situations where we have soccer for girls where they begin playing at 13, 14 or 15 years old in clubs. Before that age they play by themselves. The hope we have is this is the first stage to having the motivation to develop the sport in the country.” – Brazil’s women’s coach Vadão.

It’s possible that Marta will return as a national team member in the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France. But it’s unlikely that she and her teammates Formiga and Cristiane are all thinking realistically about retirement at this point. Women’s soccer development can’t wait for a gold medal to prove that it’s a worthwhile investment. That’s putting the chicken before the egg. Now that the gold medal is out of the question on home soil, for the women, it’s time for a nation that values soccer above almost everything to realize holding back the next generation of talent holds back their own history within a world that continues to evolve without them.

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