Marta first realised she wanted to be a professional footballer when she was around eight or nine. It was a common enough dream for Brazilian boys her age, but almost unheard of for a girl at the time. Though she failed to comprehend why, football, it was said, was a game for boys only, a message driven home to her time and time again. The young Marta refused to see things that way however, and today, as she blows the candles out on her 31st birthday cake, she will do so with the satisfaction of having fulfilled her childhood dream, in no little style and despite all the obstacles.
Hurdles to clear
Marta was born in Dois Riacho, a town of a little over 10,000 inhabitants, and even her family was underwhelmed at the idea of her grazing her knees chasing after balls in the street. “Football’s seen by many people as a man’s sport, but I always tell them that it’s not, that sport has a lot to tell us about social inclusion and gender equality,” she explained. “You have to look at sport in a positive light. You can’t have that kind of prejudice. You have to let people show what they can do through their talent, regardless of what sex they are.”
Marta certainly has plenty of talent, and character too. She needed to show lots of it in facing up to everyone and pursuing a dream that seemed to be out of reach. After all, the idea of women playing football in Brazil 20 years ago was as unlikely as seeing snow fall on the Copacabana.
“There was no going back though,” she smiled on recalling her determination to make things happen. “And it wasn’t easy. I went to Sweden when I was 17 and I spent five years there. Then I felt it was time for a change of scene, to try another country, and so I went to the USA. It wasn’t easy there either, though. I had a three-year contract with the league, but my club folded at the end of my first season.
“I signed for another club, and even though they went on to win the league, they too had to fold for financial reasons. I then joined another team before returning to Sweden. I had all these obstacles to face the whole time, but I just couldn’t go back. I had to keep going and use all the weapons I had to keep motivating myself more and more and not give up. And thank God I didn’t give up!”
I’d like to see the women’s game get more and more competitive and for there to be less discrimination and prejudice.
Marta, Brazil forward.
Thanks indeed, because with five FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year awards to her name, Marta, who now plays for Swedish club Rosengard, is one of the brightest stars of the women’s game. And though things are a little easier now for any young women who want to become footballers, she would not change the experiences that she had to go through. “I like everything that’s happened in my life,” she said. “I think it’s an example for all the girls who are starting out now. I don’t regret that my career started then. I think what that generation did was essential in giving the women’s game a push. We did something that’s led to the current situation and which has allowed people to think of a better future.”
Challenges still to meet
She has spent 20 years thinking of a brighter future, because there is always room for improvement, as she explained: “The women’s game is more advanced now. There are more job options and more markets too. There’s Europe and Asia, it’s good in America as well, and the Brazilian market is also improving. But I’d like to see the women’s game get more and more competitive and for there to be less discrimination and prejudice. We need more countries with organised leagues, clubs giving opportunities, and a structure so that women who make the choice and want to make the national team or want to be professionals get all the right conditions in which to work.”
She has a very good piece of advice for anyone who shares her childhood dream: “It’s still difficult today, but it’s a bit easier than it was when I started out. So you have to seize the moment, chase your dreams and believe in yourself.”
Though she is now 31, she still has dreams to fulfil or, rather, unfinished business to take care of: “Football is a passion in Brazil. It’s a religion. All Brazilian people care about is finishing first. Anything other than first place doesn’t make sense. It’s not as special. And that takes its toll on the Brazilian women’s team. In other countries, they get recognition for winning a bronze or coming fourth, but in Brazil that’s still a bit of an issue.”
The winner of two Olympic silver medals, Marta was also a member of the Brazil side that finished FIFA Women’s World Cup™ runners-up ten years ago and is the leading goalscorer in the history of the competition. Reflecting on those near misses, which include two Olympic final defeats to USA in 2004 and 2008, she said: “Not winning titles with the national team, both in the World Cup and the Olympic Games, definitely pushes me to keep on working. If you look at other sports, any Olympic medal is a cause for celebration. But in football, winning a silver is like losing. And we’ve got two. But we’re still there, working towards our objective, which is to win titles.”
While Marta, one of life’s eternal optimists, has yet to taste glory in the colours closest to her heart, the game has brought her many magical moments: “Winning the World Player of the Year… it’s difficult to explain how you feel when you step up to the stage. The recognition and affection I’ve received over the years makes me happy and also motivates me to keep fighting this battle.”
Those moments include a call from one of the icons of Brazilian football: “Yes, Pele called to congratulate me. We spoke a little and I couldn’t believe it was him to begin with. I’ve even had the good fortune to meet him in person. It was a pleasure and very exciting.”
Those are just some of the moments, both big and small, that make up the success story of one of the greatest women players of our time, just one of the many who refused to accept the idea that football is a man’s game.