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The story of Marta
She has won the FIFA Player of the Year award for five consecutive years, an achievement none of her male counterparts can boast of. She has even been compared to Pele. She is fast becoming a household name in the US, and in her native Brazil, as one of the most compelling professionals in the game today. And as the Brazilian edition of goal. com put it so eloquently, although she had a childhood of adversity not unlike that of most footballers in the country, she had one unique obstacle to overcome: Being a woman.
Marta Vieira da Silva, better known simply as Marta, was brought up by her mother and grandmother in a small town in the northeastern Brazilian state of Alagoas. By all accounts, she took naturally to ball control, and from the age of seven was making a name for herself dribbling past little boys in the streets surrounding her home.
Today, she earns a living playing football, and boosts her income with sponsorship and advertising contracts. She has lived in Sweden and the US, but started her 'professional' path in Vasco da Gama in Rio.
In this edition of the Women's World Cup she has generated countless praise, with US columnists claiming she is "one of the reasons that a casual soccer fan might watch early-round games in the Women's World Cup". Somehow, the World Cup itself, the most coveted trophy in the game, has eluded her. The women's game has come a long way, even in Brazil, where the male version of the popular leisure activity - the biggest Brazilian industry - leaves little room for anyone else wanting to join in.
In 1999, when the World Cup was played in the US, the organising committee had to resist pressure to stage matches in college campus grounds, and were forced to insist on women being given the chance to play in professional stadia. For the inaugural fixtures (two games were played in succession on the same day) they didn't just manage to fill the iconic New Jersey stadium to capacity. In the first game, they sold out soccer Barbies by half time. Yet the Brazilian squad, one of the four teams playing that day, found that their efforts in qualifying and excelling were largely ignored back home. Globo TV, the giants of Brazilian media, had secured the rights to the national team's matches but as the tournament clashed with the Copa Amêrica, the games were not broadcast live.
Things have changed since then. Although the women's World Cup is still eclipsed by the Copa Amêrica in terms of popularity and television viewership, it has got much air time. Now, Marta is a true hero back home. But there's still a long way to go. In a feature on the 'world's best player' just before the World Cup kicked off in Germany this summer, local newspaper Der Spiegel summed up the plight perfectly: "Marta could win the Women's World Cup 10 times over, but she'd still be playing a different sport than the one the men play. Her sport isn't a massive global business;instead, it's more of a glorified hobby. Some 100 million people around the world recently watched Messi and FC Barcelona win the Champions League, but Marta is shooting goals for a hotdog manufacturer. "
She hasn't, actually, won the World Cup at all. In spite of being hailed as a contender to the title, Brazil went out to the USA on penalties. In fact, four years ago, when the country reached the final for the first and only time so far, Marta missed a penalty against Germany, allowing them to become world champions. Der Spiegel further noted in their profile of the under-recognized superstar that "when Marta hears that the German team has been training for the World Cup for weeks, she is amazed. She explains that doing so wouldn't be possible in Brazil". The German paper went on to explain that Brazil wasn't a country known for women's soccer. Brazil, ironically, doesn't even have a national league for women. It only has a single tournament.
That may come as a surprise but the truth is that in most parts of the world the women's game is struggling to sustain itself. I remember being shocked when interviewing a Spanish goalkeeper who was playing for Arsenal ladies at the time. She trained in the morning and was 'offered' a job at the Arsenal shop by the stadium in the afternoon.
Marta's story, in so many ways a reflection of the Brazilian story of talent amidst poverty, is still also the story of women. As a brave teenager, she took a bus to Rio to seek a better life. She lucked out and found friends, stability, an income and respect. And she is now finding that world success on a commercial scale may well imply a series of club-hopping experiments in the USA, and quite a lot of media stunts. One magazine carried a Marta photo shoot titled "Pele in a skirt" ! Recognition indeed.
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