On a trip to the Olympic gold medal match in the Maracanã, young women footballers from Vidigal spoke of the barriers they have overcome to play the sport they love
Pacheco and six other young women and girls, the youngest among them aged just eight, had all travelled from Vidigal, the informal neighbourhood on the hillside near affluent Leblon beach, to the legendary stadium in Rio de Janeiro to see the Olympic gold medal awarded in women's football, the sport they play seriously despite a lingering attitude in Brazil that it is not for them.
“Whether it is boys playing or girls playing, football is life,” said one of the young footballers from Vidigal, Tamires Domingos.
It's not always easy for girls in Brazil to play the game they love. Domingos, now 22, started kicking the ball around when she was nine years old, more than holding her own with boys her own age. Then, like many other young women, once she reached a certain age she found herself edged out of the kick-arounds.
Boys just stopped passing her the ball, she said. That would have been the beginning of the end for many young women footballers in Brazil. It wasn’t for Domingos, thanks to an initiative set up in Rio by a footballer from the USA who was dismayed by the lack of sporting opportunities for women.
Domingos now plays football during the week in session organised by PlayLife, which was established four years ago by Shanna Adderley, a former collegiate and semi-professional player in the USA. Despite having enough skill to be selected for her country’s Olympic development squad, when she came to Brazil Adderley was shocked to find she was not welcome to play football among the men.
“When I arrived in Brazil, I thought I was going to be in the heart of soccer. I found early on that I was being turned away,” Adderley said. “I was told women don’t belong on a soccer field.”
Lacking a competitive women’s league to join in Rio de Janeiro, Adderley decided to start the kind of football programme that first got her hooked on sport when she was a girl growing up in Washington State.
At the first practice session that Adderley organised in Vidigal, four girls showed up nearly an hour late. But the next time, they all came back.
While the girls may have embraced the opportunity to play football, the challenges are constant, said Adderley. More than once the women footballers have they been told to leave because men want to play. Nevertheless, since the first practice more than 60 players have participated and a dozen of them now play every single week.
The PlayLife programme has not only helped young women play football together. It has also grown their self-esteem and supported their personal development. Four years later, Domingos is now taking the lead in growing PlayLife to the next level and is actively seeking a second pitch for practices and games.
“Today I felt like standing up and getting on the field to play,” Domingos said at the Maracanã on Friday. “When I watch (Brazilian star player) Marta, I try to do what she does.”
Although the beautiful game has a global following, the girls from Vidigal know all too well it is not easy for everyone to play.
Even their idol Marta, the superstar of the national women’s seleção, had to leave Brazil to develop her skills in Europe, going on to win FIFA's player of the year award a total of five times. Her agent famously said she would never have become Marta had she stayed in her home country.
Still, change is in the air. Watching the grand Olympic final at the Maracanã, in one of the best attended women's matches in history, the young footballers from Vidigal said they hoped the barriers to women footballers in Brazil would gradually come down.
And on a magical night in Rio, the capacity crowd was rewarded with a flowing, end-to-end game every bit as good as the men's World Cup final in the stadium in 2014 – if not better.
The six young players from Vidigal watched enthralled as Germany went up two goals before Sweden netted one of their own.
After she stepped inside the fabled Maracanã for the first time, eight-year-old Yara Monzita da Silva said the best part of the match was Germany’s first goal. Dzsenifer Marozsan cracked a shot from the top of the 18-yard box. The young Brazilian liked what she saw. “I’ve scored goals like that,” she said. “That was my favourite moment."
Little Yara won't be scoring a goal in the Maracanã anytime soon. But the opportunity to play women's football has given her gifts every bit as precious as Olympic gold: self-esteem, fun, empowerment and friendship. Gifts that football programmes such as PlayLife are now giving to more and more young women in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro.