BARE FEET, BRUISED TOES
CRISTIANE, A BRAZILIAN TRAILBLAZER
Raisa Simplicio & Rupert Fryer
“I’m a simple girl,” says Cristiane, her gaze dipping as she shifts in her chair at Sao Paulo’s iconic Morumbi stadium. “I come from a humble family, with a mother who gave everything to support her children.”
That description could be rolled out for one of a million Brazilians. But Cristiane Rozeira de Souza Silva is special - one in a million, the all-time leading goalscorer in the Olympic Games, both among men and women. Despite her humility, however, ‘Cris’ knew from a very early age that she was different, that she enjoyed a unique relationship with the ball.
But being the only girl of her age who loved the game above all else brought its challenges. The long battle against prejudice begins early for some – too early.
“Simply put, football was my passion, it always has been,” Cristiane tells Goal and Plan International, a global children's charity harnessing the power and popularity of football to help some of the world’s poorest children to fulfil their potential, while fighting to transform girls’ lives through education with their 'Because I am a Girl' campaign.
“It was love at first sight. I was the only girl in my street that played with the boys. I tried to play the games the girls played, but I played a little rougher, so they wouldn’t let me in. I’m not sure if it’s because I played football or because I always had bruised toes, bare feet, which wasn’t [considered] ‘nice’," she recalls. And the prejudices she encountered were not restricted only to her peers.
“People really offended me, but it’s much worse when you hear it from an adult. When you’re a kid, you just think about playing and you don’t think about boys’ or girls’ games, so it hurt more when it came from an adult. Sometimes I arrived home crying from the things I would hear, from people who knew exactly what they were saying.”
Cristiane channelled the negative energy into the fire that fuelled her desire to realise her dreams, though it was far from a smooth ride, with obstacles arriving at every turn. Upon realising just how talented an adolescent Cristiane was, a friendly neighbour - who would become something of a footballing mentor to her - attempted to convince her mother, Mrs Ivete, to let the girl play. Instead, she took her daughter to ballet, gymnastics and even capoeira. But when Cris arrived home in floods of tears from the verbal abuse, a decision was finally made: “From now on, my daughter will play football,” insisted a defiant Mrs Ivete.
At 12 years-old, Cristiane attended her first formal training session. By 14 she had joined the first club of her career, Juventus da Mooca, and it was there that the free-scoring striker understood that football was her destiny. Two years later, the girl who had to fight to join games on the street was playing for her country. She played her first World Cup before participating in first Olympics.
Things moved quickly following Mrs Ivete’s decision, but Cris’ journey was far from a stroll. “I’ve been through a lot of difficult times. I had to skip steps and I think that made a difference. But everyone thought I had something different. Some moments were like dreams, but I also had to fight a lot to remain [in the game].” Cristiane would travel the world in search of regular employment, playing in a host countries as she took in vastly different cultures in Germany, China, Russia and USA.
Her incredible goal-scoring instinct followed every step of the way. Alongside Marta and Formiga, she championed women’s football back home, a pioneer in the game’s fight for recognition in the spiritual home of the Beautiful Game, a nation defined by its unrivalled footballing tradition.
But with heroism comes responsibility, and with glory comes pain. In 2016, after missing out on an Olympic gold in front of an expectant home crowd, Cristiane faced her biggest challenge yet. “I’ve suffered with depression,” she admits. “There are people who still think I was being soft, but that’s not true. Nothing seems to satisfy you when you have that illness.”
Injured in Brazil’s second game at Rio 2016, she returned as a 90th minute substitute in the semi-finals against Sweden, battling through extra-time before missing her spot-kick in the penalty-shootout as the Selecao bowed out. A young, exciting Andressinha also failed to find the net but as a senior, experienced pro, it was Cristiane who was left to carry the blame.
Brazil went on to lose the Bronze Medal Match against Canada, which increased the criticism and scrutiny. The iconic no.11 kept her problems to herself, concerned her depression heap stress on her loved ones, but the support from her extended family at French club PSG proved essential to her recovery.
“I wanted to leave. ‘I can’t feel joy, I can’t do anything', I told the team captain. I told her everything. I talked to the coach, too, and he became a father figure for me - he hugged me and told me I was going to bounce back.”
The darkness descended to the point that Cristiane had even given up on the national team, her greatest passion. “In my head, I decided to stop. There were a lot of things piling up: the upset of being injured, losing the Olympic Games in Brazil, being harassed. I exploded. Then, when I managed to recover, I realised that I couldn’t go through all that for nothing.”
And now she is desperate to leave a legacy. The everyday struggle to remain in the sport full-time, battling poor infrastructure to the uncertainty about the future of clubs and national leagues, are all factors that have helped harden her in the fight for the future of women’s football.
“Every time something big happens [for women’s football], I try to keep my feet on the ground because I don’t know how long it’s going to last. Of course, today we’re living a far better situation, with more visibility and higher expectations. It looks like Brazil is on the right track, but I always say that we can only measure it if we go forward after the Olympic Games [of 2016]. I’ve lived periods of overconfidence, mostly after we won [silver medals in the 2004 and 2008 Olympics].”
Because even after all her success, goals, titles and countless achievements, doubts still linger for Cris. She has nowhere near the financial stability that her male counterparts enjoy and, for women’s football to sustain its evolution, she is calling on more women to get involved off the pitch.
“It sounds crazy, but there really aren't many women in women’s football. It’s mostly men. Anytime there’s a woman who takes an important role, she’s under scrutiny all the time. I’m not sure if it’s fear about losing power, or prejudice, but I think we have more desire to pursue our goals, to study, to evolve - why is that so difficult to accept?
“Why is there not as much space for women in sport?”
Cristiane’s dreams are now to see women’s football increase its level of professionalism in Brazil, so that girls can believe they could make a living from from the game. As her glittering career begins to wind down, the 34-year-old is already thinking about life once the final whistle sounds. And everyone has a part to play.
“I’m thinking about a lot of things, maybe taking a course so I can train youth teams. I think I’ll start slow. I want to keep working with what I love. I can’t stop now. I hope I can leave a legacy for the girls, on a personal level and also in the national team, offering sound advice, and also that they have a voice to keep fighting for our sport as a whole. Because if everyone comes together, we can make a huge difference.”
Plan International UK is a global children’s charity. We work to give every child the same chance in life.