Pelé; Ronaldo; Sócrates; Garrincha: Brazil has had its fair share of legends, players so great a nickname in Portuguese is enough to identify them the world over. But there’s another who sits as equal amongst these greats, whose name is often forgotten. Marta – a Rainha – is the undisputed heir to Pelé’s throne.
Between 2006 and 2010, Marta achieved an incredible and unprecedented feat. She won five consecutive FIFA World Player of the Year awards. For five years in a row she was the finest female footballer on the planet, a record that nobody else can match. She has also finished as runner-up four times and twice come third, making it 11 consecutive years in the top three. But the road to world domination, to being recognised as one of the greatest ever to lace up a pair of chuteiras, has been far from smooth.
Marta Vieira da Silva Viega was born in 1986 in Dois Riachos, a tiny town in Alagoas, which lies in Brazil’s poverty-stricken north-east. Alagoas has the both the lowest Human Development Index and lowest literacy rate of any of Brazil’s 26 states. Over 22 percent of people there cannot even write their own name, and many more are functionally illiterate.
It also has the second highest rate of child mortality, the second lowest life expectancy, and the second lowest income per capita in the country. Even after the huge reductions in extreme poverty seen during the Lula government’s boom years, the average person in Alagoas currently takes home just over 600 reais per month, around £120.
Marta was no different from your average Alagoana. Her mother, Tereza, was a domestic employee and her father left the family when she was just a year old, leaving Dona Tereza with Marta and three other children to take care of.
She was raised by her mother with the help of her eldest brother, José, and it was he who would introduce her to the beautiful game. On the road outside her mother’s house, playing with her brothers, Marta would take her first tentative steps along the path to greatness.
“You’re a girl, Marta.” This was her mother’s response when, at the age of five, Marta asked her mother for one real to buy her own football. Fortunately for football, that didn’t deter young Marta. By the age of seven she would go with her cousins and friends to the local football pitch and play for hours, the only girl amongst a mass of young boys.
Football was not – and still isn’t – seen as an acceptable activity for females in Brazil. Incredibly, it was illegal for women to play football in Brazil from 1941 until 1979 on the grounds that it is not compatible with their ‘feminine nature’. Not just frowned upon; it was illegal.
This ban continues to have repercussions today, with female players facing huge challenges just to play the game they love. Discrimination and pressure to stay off the pitch is ubiquitous.
When asked in an interview with Folha de São Paulo if she suffered from prejudice as a girl starting out in a ‘man’s game’ Marta responded: “Yes, a lot. I’m from Dois Riachos, a small town in the interior of Alagoas. People at that time did not look kindly upon on a girl playing football with a load of boys, and my family thought in the same way.”
It was at school that her talent was first noted. After a game of handball in which she had played in goal, the girls were allowed 10 minutes to show what they could do with the ball at their feet. Marta did not disappoint, her dribbling skills, silky touch and the fierce left-footed shot for which she has become world-famous were immediately evident.
In 1999 she started playing in the youth system of Centro Sportivo Alagoas, the state’s biggest club. Incidentally, it is the club that produced Dida, the striker whose injury just before the start of the 1958 World Cup opened a place in Brazil’s starting line-up, allowing the 17-year-old Pelé to send shockwaves through the football world.
The next year, at the age of just 14, Marta embarked on the three-day bus journey across Brazil’s continental land-mass from Alagoas to Rio de Janeiro to join Vasco da Gama. She stayed in Rio for two years, getting her first taste of the top-level of the Brazilian women’s game.
In 2002, however, Vasco ceased their female football operation and Marta was forced to move. She found a new home at the amateur club Santa Cruz in Minas Gerais state. It was at this time that she first made her mark on the international stage, taking Brazil to fourth place in the under-19 World Cup in Canada.
Her performances at the championships, where she finished with the award for the third best player, was enough to convince the senior team to give her a first cap in 2002, still aged just 16, and take her to the 2003 Pan-American Games.
At the games, Marta was the standout player as the Seleção reached the final, scoring both of Brazil’s goals in a 2-1 semi-final win over arch-rivals Argentina. In the final, they beat Canada 2-1 to take the gold medal back to Rio.
Later in the year, Marta would travel to the epicentre of women’s football, the USA, to take part in her first World Cup. Though she found the net three times in four games, it was not enough for Brazil to avoid being eliminated at the quarter-final stage, crashing out 2-1 to Sweden.
Marta’s increasing international profile and her performance against the Swedes at the World Cup earned her a move to the Scandinavian country, home to one of Europe’s most established women’s leagues, in 2004. In doing so she became the first Brazilian woman to play professionally in Europe.
She signed with Umeå IK, whose manager spent two months just trying to get in contact with her after the World Cup as she had no telephone in her house. When she finally got there, she made an immediate impact, helping her new side to the 2004 UEFA Cup. That year UIK also finished second in the league, Marta managing 22 goals in as many games.
It was here that Marta would reach the peak of her footballing powers, leading UIK to three consecutive league titles, in 2006, ’07, and ’08, and picking up three of her five World Footballer of the Year titles as well. At her blistering best Marta was a frightening prospect for opposition defenders. Former Canadian international Marina Franko said: “I’ve never played anybody as fast as her. I’ve never seen anyone who runs as fast as you, then as soon as she touches the ball, gets faster.”
During this time she would also experience her greatest moments in the famous yellow and green of the national team. At the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Marta again led the way, scoring three times in six games as Brazil finished with a silver medal. They lost to the USA in the final, having also been beaten by them in the group stages, Marta’s individual brilliance not enough to see them overcome the team who would become their greatest rivals.
At the 2007 Pan-American Games in Rio, Marta and the Seleção would repeat the feat they had managed four years previously, romping home to the gold medal, Marta scoring a stunning 12 goals in six games. This included five in a 7-0 thrashing of Canada and two – both penalties – in a sweet 5-0 final win over the USA in front of 68,000 in the Maracanã, taking revenge for the loss in Greece three years before.
More importantly, though, this was also a World Cup year – perhaps Brazil’s best chance to take their first women’s World Cup, with the attacking trio of Marta, Cristiane and Formiga all in the form of their lives.
Brazil got off to a flying start, beating New Zealand 5-0 and the hosts China 4-0, Marta scoring two in each game. In the quarter-finals the Seleção overcame Australia 3-2 to move into the semis where they would again face the might of the USA. Marta shone, scoring two more in another 4-0 victory, securing the Golden Boot and the Golden Ball for best player in the process.
It was in this game that she scored what she believes to be her greatest ever goal; a sensational individual effort. She picked up a bouncing ball on the touchline near the corner of the penalty area with her back to goal; flicking it up with her right foot she then back-heeled it with her left around one side of the defender before pirouetting around the other. She entered the area, feinted to shoot, beat one more with a swivel of the hips and slotted the ball past the American goalkeeper with her weaker right foot.
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Read | When Pelé became a national treasure in Brazil
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But the collective glory she really desired wasn’t to be. In the final Marta missed a penalty as Brazil succumbed 2-0 to Germany, out-muscled by a defence that did not concede a single goal in the tournament.
Brazil also came frustratingly close at their next major tournament, the 2008 Beijing Olympics. After beating the Germans 4-1 in the semis, they again fell at the final hurdle, losing 1-0 to their old adversary the USA.
Marta has been quoted on several occasions as saying she believes she has the talent to make it in the men’s game, despite the physical limitations that come with being five foot four inches and of slight build. Not that she is scared of the physical side of the game; in the 2005 Swedish Cup final she was sent from the field for punching an opponent in the face, and in 2008 saw red again for kicking someone in the stomach.
In 2009 she nearly got her chance to prove her doubters wrong when a film crew attempted to arrange for her to take part in a documentary to see how she would cope in the professional men’s game. The wildly exotic surroundings of Oldham Athletic were to provide the backdrop for this particular adventure but, for one reason or another, the film was never made. Perhaps the Oldham players were scared of being shown up by a woman.
On the day that she received her fourth World Player of the Year award, in January 2009, Marta announced that, after 111 goals in 103 games for UIK, she was leaving Sweden in search of a new challenge, joining the LA Sol in the newly formed Women’s Professional Soccer League. She joined along with Umeå team-mate and close friend Johanna Frisk, whose simultaneous transfer was reportedly one of Marta’s demands when signing.
Upon her arrival at the Home Depot Centre, a home which she would share with David Beckham of LA Galaxy, she was presented with her shirt by LA Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, who told the gathered media that Marta was one of his favourite athletes and invited her to sit courtside at the next Lakers home game.
The Sol finished as runners-up and Marta as top-scorer in the league’s inaugural season. After the end of that season, she was loaned to Pelé’s old team Santos for three months to take part in their women’s Copa Libertadores and Copa do Brasil campaigns. It was the first time she had returned to Brazilian club football since leaving for Sweden in 2004.
Unsurprisingly, with the world’s greatest ever player at their disposal, Santos took both titles, beating Paraguayan side Universidad Autonoma 9-0 in the final of the Libertadores, the second goal a beautiful free-kick from Marta. In her brief spell back in Brazil she managed 28 goals in 15 games.
Despite picking up her fifth consecutive Player of the Year award in January 2010, Marta found herself in a frustratingly familiar position on her return to the US. The LA Sol had folded and she was once again forced to travel in search of playing opportunities.
She moved to Santa Clara and FC Gold Pride for the 2010 season, this time claiming the title after finishing as top-scorer once more. At the end of the campaign she was loaned back to Santos for another three-month stint, though this time success eluded the Peixão.
During this spell, the financial ruin that has blighted Marta’s career once again befell her clubs. Whilst she was in Brazil, FC Gold Pride crumbled and soon after she left Santos they too chose to close down their women’s footballing operation, all in order to fund a contract for Neymar.
After signing the contract Neymar was asked if he felt responsible for putting an end the women’s team’s successful existence. Before he could answer the club president intervened, saying: “The goal of Santos is to have professional football that can last for hundreds of years. Other side activities [like the women’s team] are possible when possible. As we’re champions, wages are higher, the players are more expensive and we have to readjust.”
This is a clear example of the value placed on women’s football in Brazil and the difficulties female footballers face in forging a career in the game.
The financial devaluation of women’s football is something Marta has to deal with until today, even as the finest player on the planet. She currently earns about US$400,000 a year from her club, a comfortable income of course, but a pittance when compared with what a player like Neymar can command.
Marta found another club, with Western New York Flash taking on the remainder of her contract. She again won the title, the golden boot and was named MVP for the second successive year. After the 2011 season it was not just her club that went bust but the entire league, forcing her to abandon her American dream and return to Sweden with Tyresö FC.
Another of the beautiful game’s great four-year cycles had also passed, meaning another chance at the World Cup, this time in Germany. But again Marta would leave disappointed, with Brazil eliminated on penalties by the US after a 2-2 draw in which she scored both of her country’s goals.
She spent two years with Tyresö between 2012 and 2014 before they too went out of business. This means that six of her nine clubs, since turning pro for Vasco in 2000, no longer exist. That this could happen to the finest of all time is a perfect illustration of the precarious situation female professionals find themselves in.
After this latest episode of financial failure, she made her way to FC Rosengård where she continues to ply her trade at, amazingly – after such a diverse and nomadic career – still only 30-years-old.
In her two major international tournaments during this time, London 2012 and the 2015 World Cup in Canada, an ageing Brazil team seriously disappointed. They went out to Japan in the quarters in London and didn’t even make it past the round-of-16 in the 2015 World Cup, where they were overcome by Australia.
Despite the team disappointment, there was more individual success for Marta. In the group stages in Canada, she scored her only goal of the tournament to take her onto 15 in World Cup finals, a record in the women’s game, the joint highest of any Brazilian, and only one behind Miroslav Klose’s overall record of 16.
In December 2015, in her 100th game for the Seleção, Marta scored five in an 11-0 thrashing of Trinidad and Tobago. This took her onto 98 international goals and made her Brazil’s most prolific player, overtaking Pelé’s mark of 95, which he needed 114 games to reach.
She has since moved past the 100-goal mark, a truly stunning number and a tribute to both her brilliance and her longevity in a game where many stars burn extremely quickly.
Owing to her propensity for breaking records Marta is often compared to Pelé; the queen to Pelé’s king. O Rei himself even referred to her as “Pelé with skirts”. He followed this poorly worded compliment with some unmistakable misogyny. With the tact and delicacy of a drunk Dave Whelan, he added: “She has one advantage; her legs are much sexier than mine.”
This sort of attitude to women’s football is common in Brazil. Last year, the head of Brazilian women’s football Marco Cunha said that the increasing popularity of the women’s game in the country is down to the players now wearing make-up, doing their hair and wearing shorter shorts.
Though obviously flattered by being likened to Pelé, Marta prefers to see herself as her own player, taking parts from the games of a variety of Brazil’s many greats. When pushed to make a comparison she chooses Ronaldinho.
Her beautiful playing is technique is reminiscent of the golden era of Brazilan football-art. The way she drops her shoulder, swivels her hips and accelerates away from opponents can’t help but remind one of the style in which Garrincha led Brazil to the 1962 World Cup. She is one of a dying breed – a jinking samba dancer in a game that increasingly resembles a contest of gladiatorial power and stamina.
In Rio in August, Marta will have the opportunity to make amends for her missed opportunities at previous Olympics and World Cups. A first Olympic football gold medal for the futebol nation in front of 75,000 home fans in the Maracanã would be the sweetest icing on the most extravagant of cakes and a fitting final chapter in her storied career.
Marta herself is not too worried about the effect of the Olympics on her personal legacy. She would much prefer to see it used as a springboard for the acceptance of the women’s game in Brazil, the creation of a strong domestic professional league and the establishment of a stable youth system for Brazilian girls.
As for what she will do after she finally hangs up those chuteiras? Marta says that she will work in any way she can to help the women’s game reach its huge potential; whether that be as an international FIFA ambassador or as a coach teaching young girls on that dirt pitch in Dois Riachos where her adventure began.
Marta has done an incredible amount to advance the women’s game in Brazil and around the world but there is still a mighty long way to go, as Marco Cunha’s recent comments prove. However, with the drive and determination that took her from the Alagoas interior to world superstardom, surely Marta is the right person to make it happen.
At the Pan-American Games in Rio in 2007 one Brazil supporter held up a placard that read: “I never saw Pelé, but I have seen Marta.” We can all count ourselves fortunate to be able to say the same.
By Joshua Law. Follow @JoshuaMLaw