The night Marta became the greatest talent in the women’s game

The night Marta became the greatest talent in the women’s game

This feature is part of Virtuoso

After the game against Czechoslovakia in the group stages of the 1970 World Cup, when he audaciously tried to chip opposing goalkeeper Viktor from the halfway line, Pelé was asked why he had attempted such an outrageous piece of skill. The most celebrated of World Cup heroes replied that he wanted a ‘signature’ goal; something that would forever be remembered as ‘the Pelé Goal’. It wasn’t hubris or extravagance, it was a search for a defining moment of his career.

Sadly, the lofted effort sailed just wide of the goal and the greatest of all number 10s failed to hit the mark. Thirty-seven years later, though, a player many would consider just as dominant at the time achieved that same target. Ironically, perhaps, she was also donned in the canarinho of Brazil’s Seleção and sported the same number 10 on the back of her shirt.

It was the 2007 Women’s World Cup and, in a game where Brazil would defeat the United States of America 4-0, Marta Vieira da Silva delivered the sort of virtuoso performance that would underscore her status as the greatest exponent in the history of the women’s game. The player known the world over simply as Marta would also provide that extra-special goal, delivering on Pelé’s aspiration.

The player who Pelé himself nicknamed ‘Pelé in skirts’ was already a world star by the time the 2007 Women’s World Cup came around. Earlier in the same year, she had arrived as a national heroine when Brazil won the Pan American Games in front of 68,000 fans at Rio’s Estádio do Maracanã. Her contribution to the victory was considered to be so significant that afterwards a concrete cast of her feet was taken and displayed at the stadium. The only woman in the history of the Brazilian game to be so honoured, her crowning moment was still to come.

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Early autumn the same year, the Women’s World Cup was staged in China. As expected, Brazil sauntered through the group stage, winning all three games and Marta netted four times to illustrate the form she was in. She scored again in the last eight match-up with Australia as a 3-2 win took the Seleção into a semi-final match-up against the USA.

If the Americans had been targeting redemption for their Rio defeat, however, they would be rudely shaken from such aspirations. They, and the rest of the footballing world, were about to be treated to a masterclass performance. The game took place in Hangzhou’s Yellow Dragon Stadium on 27 September and would mark the Brazilian star down as the finest her game had ever known.

As is so often the case when tournaments reach such a crucial stage, the early moments of the match were tense, with both teams careful to avoid losing the game before it had effectively started. One player shone out though; the outstanding talent. The number 10 danced on the back of Marta’s shirt as she skipped past challenges, swaying one way then the other to drive her team forwards. In the 20th minute, Brazil got their reward. It was, of course, Marta involved in the action, but the goal was unarguably a tad fortunate.

Marta swung a dangerous corner in from the left, and as the American defender Leslie Osborne stooped to try and clear the viciously dipping cross, she merely succeeded in diverting the ball past her own goalkeeper to put Brazil ahead. For all the good fortune involved in the opening strike, any such reliance on the whims of fate were then cast aside as Marta took full control of the game.

With confidence now coursing through the Brazil team, she added the second goal just seven minutes later. Cutting in from the right, she simply ran past defenders as they trailed in her wake. Then, cutting inside, she drifted across the edge of the penalty area before driving left-footed inside the near post, past Tina Ellertson in the American goal, whose flailing touch on the ball couldn’t prevent its passage into the net. It was the strike of a player who knew that the stage was hers for the taking and that she had the beating of her opponents on the night. To all intents and purposes, the game was surely now done, but Marta still had plenty of tricks and skills to display.

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For the next half-hour or so, either side of the half-time break, she had the crowd cheering with expectation each time she took possession of the ball. Deceptive bursts of speed, sashaying runs and mesmerising dribbles linking up with her teammates had the Americans conceding that they were playing second fiddle to a virtuoso performance of the highest order. US star Carli Lloyd later said: “Marta raised the stadium, all on her own.” She did indeed, and when the third goal came, just ahead of the hour mark, it would be the mercurial Marta who created it.  

Raiding in from the left this time, she drove into the American half with opponents trailing grasping at thin air. She drew the remaining defenders to her as moths to a light. As she ran, she was illuminated enough to see colleague Cristiane sprinting into the space that her run had created. Selflessly sliding the ball across, her teammate coolly controlled and slotted home before celebrating with the game’s outstanding talent. By now the Americans were well beaten, but the defining moment of the game was still to come.

With just a dozen minutes remaining, a ball was played to Marta on the left. It was at a difficult height but, disdaining the need to control it, she back-heel volleyed it past her marker, accelerated clear of the bedazzled opponent to collect, dropped a shoulder to send another defender spinning off balance, before firing home. Game, set, match and signature goal for good measure. She would rate it as her best ever. “On that night, I scored what I consider to be the best goal of my career. So, it really is a perfect memory.”

Brazil would agonisingly lose 2-0 in the final to Germany, and Marta failed to convert a penalty that would have squared the scores. It would be small consolation that she would finish up as both the tournament’s top scorer and be crowned as its outstanding player. She would, however, still have her “perfect memory” of the night she shone as women’s football’s greatest star and notched her signature goal.

By Gary Thacker @All_Blue_Daze

Edited by Will Sharp @shillwarp

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