Marta, Brazil's soccer superstar, heads to her 6th World Cup. Will it be the winner?
BRASÍLIA, Brazil — Two decades ago, at just 17 years old, Marta Vieira da Silva made her first World Cup soccer appearance. She scored three goals in that 2003 tournament played in the United States. Ever since, Marta, as she's known, has never looked back and has played and scored in every Women's World Cup that followed.
She holds the record, 17, for most World Cup goals by a man or woman — even surpassing the Brazilian king of the sport, Pelé, with 12 and Ronaldo with 15. But as Marta prepares for her sixth, and what she says will be her last, World Cup, it's unclear if the queen of soccer can finally bring the trophy home.
Ranked eighth in the world, Brazil's national women's team has long been underfunded and undermined. Despite the disadvantages, Marta, now 37, has racked up nearly every other prize in professional soccer. She has two Olympic silver medals; she's been named FIFA's World Player of the Year six times and is one of the top-paid women's soccer stars in the world.
She's the pride of Orlando
Fans of the team Orlando Pride are well aware of Marta's singular status. She's been playing in Florida since the National Women's Soccer League franchise signed her six years ago.
"It's really fantastic she came from Brazil and it's hard to get here. We're really proud of her, that's why we cheer for her," said 26-year-old Bruna Palma, who was with a big group of Brazilian fans gathered for Marta's last Pride home game before heading to Australia.
Orlando ended up losing 2-1 to the Kansas City Current, despite an effortless lob over the Current goalie on a penalty kick by Marta.
Fan Kate Neal was thrilled, nevertheless. She said signing Marta has made the team better. Neal has missed only one home game since the franchise joined the NWSL seven years ago.
"She brought something that we weren't expecting and besides [bringing] experience ... well, she's also Marta, she's brilliant," Neal said.
Long before she came to the U.S. to play, she shook up the game with her brilliance like no other female player before, said Mike Woitalla, executive editor of Soccer America magazine. "She brought the Brazilian flair that set the standard for world soccer to the women's game. Her Brazilian teams were a wake-up call to the U.S. that its athleticism would no longer suffice to continue as the world power, inspiring a greater emphasis on individual skill and creativity," he said.
The pinnacle of lifetime's work
Asked recently by Brazil's SporTV what a sixth trip to the World Cup means, Marta said it's the pinnacle of a lifetime's work. And in her lauded humility, she added, it was "achieved with great teammates, love and affection."
Brazil did not officially lift its ban against women playing soccer until 1979. Born seven years after this, Marta grew up playing with boys in the country's impoverished northeast. She was bullied by many, but she outplayed most.
At 14, she boarded a bus out of the dusty farm town, Dois Riachos in Alagoas state, for Rio de Janeiro and a chance to join an all-female team. Within a few years, she was playing in Europe and, at 17, scored those first three World Cup goals on Brazil's national team.
A pioneer on and off the field, too
"She is not only a talented, brilliant player, the best we've ever had, but also she has been such an important voice in the women's game," Brazilian sports journalist Júlia Belas Trindade said in an interview with NPR.
That's especially off the field, where she defies typecasts, like in ads for Avon, the cosmetics company. In one commercial, Marta bounces a soccer ball off her knee while hyping what she says are the seven rules of women's soccer, which include never giving up and playing like a woman.
Marta is often seen sporting the company's long-lasting lipstick during matches, drawing praise as well as critics who, like during the 2019 World Cup in France, charged she was flouting FIFA's "ambush marketing" rules.
Looking out for the next generation
Marta is most passionate when speaking out about Brazil's paltry investment for younger generations, which she says puts the whole sport in jeopardy. No more so when she raged on camera after Brazil's disappointing loss to host France at the last World Cup.
Tearing up, she stared straight into the camera and began speaking directly to Brazil's young girls, telling them that she and the other pioneers of the game won't be around forever. "Women's football depends on you for its survival," she said, urging them to work hard. "You have to cry now in order to smile later," she said, before leaving the field.
Brazil's legacy of underinvestment has led to the national team repeatedly calling up its veterans for international play. Legendary midfielder Formiga played in a record seven World Cups, the last in France at age 41.
But sports journalist Belas said this fight for legitimacy and equity gives Brazil's women soccer stars an extra motivation their male counterparts just don't have. "No one doesn't want to win the World Cup. But at the same time, for the women, there is the need to say, 'It's not just for me, for my family ... this is so the younger girls will have the fruits of their labor,'" she said.
Conditions are improving
Fast forward to this year's World Cup, and progress can be seen in Brazil. This year's women's national team is younger, many play abroad and 11 of the 23-player squad have never been to the World Cup.
They also have a female world-class coach, Pia Sundhage, who led the U.S. to two Olympic gold medal wins. "Marta is the queen, Marta is the icon and just to be around her is contagious," Sundhage said at a press conference late last month announcing this year's Brazilian team. But Sundhage wouldn't commit to starting Marta. "Brazil is not only one player," she stressed. "It is a team," she said, especially since there are so many young players this year.
The team had a triumphant send-off earlier this month, trouncing Chile in a friendly game, 4-0, before departing for Australia.
The crowd, filling barely a quarter of Brasília's massive Mané Garrincha stadium, chanted wildly, "Marta, Marta, she's the queen of football," as No. 10 took to the field in the last minutes.
Thirteen-year-old Vitoria Marinho came to the game with two classmates, both boys. Like Marta 20 years ago, she has to play on a boy's team. Her school doesn't have one for girls.
"It's so different to play with boys than girls," she said, then trailed off, distracted by the activity on the field. She let out a roaring scream as Brazil scored another goal. Picking up again, she said, "it's not fair that women's sports still doesn't get the support like the men."
She said it's hard and is thinking of switching to volleyball.
Beyond World Cup glory, Marta says she has one more goal to achieve. She wants to be a mom.
Brazil's national women's team plays its first game against Panama on Monday at 7 a.m. EDT
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