Embedded within Brazil’s poverty-stricken north-east is the region of Alagoas. It ranks in the bottom two for the lowest literacy rate, child mortality rate, income per capita and overall life expectancy of any of Brazil’s 26 states.
At its heart is the small town of Dois Riachos, where Marta Vieira da Silva was brought up by her mother, Tereza, and eldest brother, José. A journey that started in the streets outside her mother’s house, it was here that Marta would take the first strides in becoming the pioneering face of women’s football.
Chastised by the economic and political landscape, Marta challenged narratives about patriarchy and male-female behavioural conventions from a young age; a lone female face against ubiquitous discrimination that stemmed from the illegality of women playing football in Brazil from 1941 to 1979.
At just 14, she embarked on a two-day bus ride from Alagoas to Rio de Janeiro, joining Vasco da Gama for two years in her first taste of organised women’s football. Although continued struggles with societal views culminated in the club ceasing female football operations by 2002, Marta’s career path showed no signs of slowing down.
Indeed, her stock enjoyed a meteoric rise from 2002 where, at the age of just 16, she scored six goals at the first FIFA Women’s Youth Championship and received her first senior cap for the Seleção. She would go on to score both goals as the standout player in a 2-1 semi-final win over Argentina on course to winning the Pan American Games a year later.
At her peak, Marta was irresistible. An electrifying blitz of power and trickery combined with a thunderous left foot, she operated as the guiding light for an unappreciated game, becoming the first Brazilian woman to play professionally in Europe with Swedish side Umeå IK.
Referred to as “Pelé in skirts” by the man himself – a reference to her natural talent – 2007 would provide the ultimate stage for Marta to showcase her status as the greatest champion of the women’s game.
It seemed an impenetrable task to beat the USA, who entered the Dragon Stadium on the back of a 51-game unbeaten run, an unparalleled achievement spanning almost three years of dominance. What transpired was a cutthroat annihilation engineered by Marta, who combined athleticism with technical astuteness and attacking flair so completely.
Sporting Brazil’s famed number 10 on her back, she dazzled opponents with the sort of expressive football that comes to mind when one thinks of the Seleção. Every stepover, feint and pirouette had a flawless purpose, leading her down a path previously walked on by the likes of Zico, Pelé, Ronaldinho, Rivaldo and Kaká.
Her first goal encapsulated her drive and ruthlessness. Cutting in from the right, she drifted one way then the other, leaving defenders trailing in her wake before driving a left-footed shot inside the near post. It was the mark of a player who knew this was her moment, an opportunity to shine on the biggest stage.
However, it was her second of the night that would go down in history as Marta’s best ever goal; an astounding piece of individual brilliance delivered with the kind of arrogant swagger only the very finest possess.
Receiving the ball 30 yards out with her back to goal, Tina Ellerston’s defensive positioning seemed sound. Yet, one nonchalant flick over the shoulder later and she’d been left for dead, desperately clasping to the Brazilian’s shirt to no avail. Next, a fake shot and slick change of direction to send Cat Whitehall off balance before sliding the ball under Briana Scurry.
The South Americans had trounced the US 4-0 in the semi-finals of the World Cup and Marta was serenaded off by the fans in Hangzhou. “Marta raised the stadium, all on her own,” recalls USA star Carli Lloyd. Her influence would help spark a revolution within the game, with wholesale changes in the way teams approached matches.
Previously adhering to a direct philosophy, the USWNT would transform to become a possession-based outfit, a tactical switch that saw them soar to new heights in the 2019 Women’s World Cup.
What’s more, in that instant, Marta would become not just a household name on the pitch, but an iconic face for women’s football off it. Dragging the game into the public eye, her skill and goalscoring feats ignited an interest in women’s football wherever she played, tearing away shouts of incredulity to open the minds of young women across the world.
Even at the age of 33, she continues to advocate for her nation, ignited by the weight of expectation rather than sinking under it. It seemed fitting that her late penalty secured passage into the last-16 against Italy, simultaneously surpassing Miroslav Klose’s record of 16 goals at World Cup finals.
Her fifth time at a World Cup finals, she has brought swathes of investment into the women’s game in Brazil, with over 300 professional now playing. There are now 16 teams in the top tier and 36 in the second, while the under-18 division has a record 24 teams. Over 3,000 amateur players also receive financial help.
She continues to advocate so vehemently in her own country for the survival of the game she helped curate. Speaking after Brazil’s exit from the World Cup, she stared down the camera, addressing the next era of female players. “It’s wanting more,” she said. “It’s training more. It’s taking care of yourself more. Fight against the prejudice. Fight against the lack of support. Fight against it all – the boys, the people who say you can’t. The women’s game depends on you to survive.”
Battling conventions and misogyny off the pitch while transforming perceptions on it, Marta’s scintillating skill and emotive cries helped revolutionise women’s football. She is women’s football’s greatest ever story.
By Leanne Prescott @lfcleanne