Marta: Brazil’s Billie Jean King?

I have written much about Marta, the best world’s best female football player.  I have also written much about women’s football.  Admittedly, I approach this topic completely from an American’s perspective, but in fairness to me, there does not seem to be much coverage of the women’s game, at least not in English.  From an American perspective, the women’s game is deeply troubled for many reasons–most of which are not the fault of the players.  From what I can gather, outside of the United State the game is not nearly as troubled, but not nearly as strong either.

From the beginning, outside of the now-collapsing China, only Northern Europe consistently challenged the United States.  That changed in 2004 when Brazil made the Olympic final.  Despite losing to the USWNT, Brazil announced itself to the world at that tournament.  Brazil’s major breakthrough came at the 2007 World Cup when it handed the USWNT its worse loss ever, a 4-0 drubbing engineered by Marta.  Although she had already won the World Player of the Year award, the match against the US (and particularly her final goal) proved to many that she was the best player in history.  That her domination has yet to let up (she has to-date won five straight World Player of the Year awards), only solidifies this view.

Despite Marta and a host of other extremely talented players (Cristiane, Daniela, Formiga, etc.), the Samba Queens have yet to win either the World Cup or the Olympics.  Brazil have now come in second at three straight tournaments (2004 Olympics, 2007 World Cup, 2008 Olympics).  In the last two, Brazil lost to inferior teams.  Germany of 2007 were noticeably less good than the 2003 team that won the World Cup–the USWNT dominated its rivalry with Germany from 2004 on.  The 2008 USWNT was definitely superior to the side crushed by Brazil–there was a much better coach, and the right goalkeeper was playing this time. Nevertheless, Brazil were still the technically superior side.  The 2007-08 Brazil  women’s team reminds me a bit of the famed 1982 Brazil men’s side–so supremely talented that they will forever live in the imagination, yet nevertheless unable to win.

The advantage that the USWNT (and the Germany) had over Brazil was experience.  Because of its macho culture, the people of Brazil either completely ignored or worse, hindered the progress of women’s team (even as the Seleção devastated the nation at the 2006 World Cup.)  Girls were actively discouraged from playing (Marta–who is not yet 25–was beaten by her brother when he found out that she played.)  The women’s team came together only for major tournaments and then disbanded.  Following their 2007 heroics, the Samba Queens collectively sent a letter to the CBF, and really to all of Brazil.  The team asked for a reasonable stipend when playing broad, and, more tellingly, begged for support.  It is shocking that a country as football-mad as Brazil with a population capable of producing brilliant players–without even trying–could be so indifferent to the plight of their national team.  (Contrast this with Nigeria, another football-mad macho country, but one that supports its women’s team, who, year in and year out, are Africa’s best.)

After 2008, I had not heard much from Brazil although Marta always overshadowed the women’s game, especially in the United States.  For good reason, I despaired for their future.  What I learned today though was how much the women’s game has changed in Brazil.  I was listening to the World Football Phone-In.  Tim Vickery and Andy Brassell were discussing the women’s game in South America and Europe.  To my surprise, Vickery said that the women’s game in Brazil has grown by leaps and bounds, and it is due almost entirely to Marta.  These are his exact words:

“There’s a case, I think, in Brazil, the case of Marta, who year after year is voted the best player in the world.  It’s a total before and after.  It’s impossible to over-exaggerate the effect that she is having. . . . But the success that Marta is having is legitimizing the game for millions and millions of girls and women in Brazil.  And I think the story of Brazil’s women’s player is such a refreshing story.”

Marta is almost singlehandedly growing the women’s game in Brazil.  To my knowledge, there is only one other female athlete who has had that kind of effect on a women’s sports anywhere: Billie Jean King.  It is comforting to know that even as the WPS stutters here, the women’s game in Brazil is finally starting the thrive.  In 2007 I wanted Brazil to win the World Cup because I thought that would be a victory for feminism.  It turns out they didn’t need to win for that.  Now if I root for Brazil, it can be because (1) they are better; and (2) Marta, the Pele and the Garrincha of women’s football, deserves a world title.  If I root for the US it would be because (1) it is my home country; and (2) I am hoping that this will save the WPS.

Regardless of who you cheer you, you have to admit that if Brazil were to win the World Cup this summer, it would be an extremely touching gesture to see the first female president of Brazil congratulate the world’s best player and her teammates for making such a macho nation proud.

One day, hopefully in my lifetime, a global history of women’s football will be written.  When it is, I feel certain that Marta will be the book’s shining star.

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