June 25, 2019 | News | No Comments
During the 2015 Women’s World Cup, Marco Aurélio Cunha, then the women’s coördinator for the Confederation of Brazilian Football, gave an astonishing interview to Canada’s Globe and Mail. As the lead-up explained, soccer in Brazil remains a man’s game. And, despite the illustrious history of the men’s team at the World Cup, the closest that the women had ever got to the title was as runners-up, in 2007. Brazil has always had a surfeit of gifted players, but the women’s team’s scant success on the world stage is unsurprising, given its lack of resources and support. Women’s soccer had been illegal in Brazil until 1981. In 2015, schoolgirls were still discouraged from playing, there were no good development programs, professional opportunities were scarce, and the pay was pathetic. Few fans paid attention to the women’s national team, despite following the men with an almost religious devotion. Still, Cunha was optimistic. “Now the women are getting more beautiful, putting on make-up,” he said. Their shorts, he added, were now shorter.
Four years later, at the 2019 World Cup, the Brazilian captain Marta Vieira da Silva, commonly known as Marta, took the field against Italy wearing lipstick. It was perhaps not what Cunha had in mind. The dark purple hue made her angular face look intense and gothic. The Internet had many opinions about what the lipstick meant for Marta, for soccer, for female athletes, for women in general, and for mankind. After the game, during which she scored her seventeenth goal in five World Cups—the most of any man or woman, ever—Marta offered her own explanation. “I always wear lipstick,” she said. “Not that color, but today I said ‘I’m going to dare.’ I tried it and I think it was good. The colour is of blood, because we had to leave blood on the pitch. Now I’m going to use it in every game.” Marta, who is thirty-three, has won FIFA’s player-of-the-year award six times—five of them consecutively, from 2006 to 2010, and the sixth only last year. She is, in fact, the most beautiful woman ever to play, and the beautiful way she plays has changed the women’s game.
That has nothing to do with lipstick, of course—though it does have something to do with the casual sexism that Marta has faced throughout her career. Growing up playing in the streets in a small rural town in Brazil, she had to be quicker, more nimble, and more imaginative than the boys who would do anything to beat her. And so she was. Pele’s beautiful game—o jogo bonito—was Brazil’s game, and wasn’t Marta Brazilian? She understood her body’s full potential, how every surface and edge could be used to gather and control the ball. She knew how a still head, dancing feet, and swaying hips could misdirect a defender. She had—no, still has—an intimacy with the ball. It never leaves her feet—not in traffic, not at a sprint—unless she compels it to, and, when she does, it bends the way she wants it.
Take the goal that announced her greatness to international audiences, at the 2007 World Cup, when she was twenty-one. The United States came into the match against Brazil as the heavy favorite, on a fifty-one-game winning streak. But Brazil was in control, and Marta was the best on the field. In the seventy-ninth minute of the match, outside the box, Marta received the ball with her back to the defender, Tina Ellertson. With a quick single touch, she flicked it into the air, and then, with a second touch, lifted it over Ellertson’s left shoulder while she spun around Ellertson to the right. Ellertson lunged to grab her shirt—anything to stop her—but Marta was already past her. Then she cut by another defender, who feebly kicked out her leg and stumbled, and nailed a shot past the goalkeeper. Marta did that kind of thing routinely. This year is the twentieth anniversary of the U.S. women’s national team’s 1999 World Cup championship, which inspired countless young women to believe that girls could become powerful athletes. But Marta did something else: she gave girls permission to dream about becoming something no one had ever seen.
Coming into this year’s tournament, not much was expected of Brazil. The team’s form had been terrible, with nine straight losses, and Marta was struggling with a thigh injury. She missed the first game, against Jamaica, and has been clearly limited ever since, her normal range restricted. Still, Brazil’s offense depends on her, and it was her goal, on a penalty kick, that let Brazil sneak out of the group stage and into the knockout rounds.
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On Sunday, they took on the host nation, France, one of the teams in the running to win the tournament. Marta wore a bright-fuchsia shade of lipstick. It was a physical, scrappy match, and both teams had missed opportunities. At the end of regulation, the score was 1–1. But, in overtime, it was quickly clear that the Brazilians, including Marta, were exhausted. She had run about eight miles on the pitch at that point, and had shown flashes of her usual magic: slipping her wiry frame through crowded spaces, dancing with the ball. But France was clearly the superior team, and, in the extra period, they won. It may well have been Marta’s last game on soccer’s biggest stage.
Afterward, she gave an interview, which turned into an impassioned speech. She had her own thoughts about the future. She faced the camera directly, her red lips punctuating her words, to address young women directly. “It’s wanting more,” she said, in Portuguese. “It’s training more. It’s taking care of yourself more. It’s being ready to play ninety plus thirty minutes. This is what I ask of the girls. There’s not going to be a Formiga forever. There’s not going to be a Marta forever. There’s not going to be a Cristiane. The women’s game depends on you to survive.”