An ant’s work is never done

By Raisa Simplicio & Rupert Fryer

“My brothers didn’t like that I played football with the other boys,” recalls Formiga. Apparently she should have been “at home, washing dishes.”

Thankfully for football, she never listened, her passion for the game was too strong to be deterred by nonsensical gender stereotyping. So instead, ‘the Ant’ (Formiga in Portuguese) embarked on one of the longest and most storied careers in world football, both men’s and women’s.

Miraildes Maciel Mota is one of a kind. The only player to have appeared at a staggering seven World Cups, this month the 41-year-old became the oldest player in Women's World Cup history, and she’s also the only athlete to participate in each of the six Olympic Games since women’s football became an Olympic sport in 1996,

Her seemingly everlasting journey began more than two decades ago, and she’s showing few signs of slowing down.

She won’t go on forever, of course, but her legacy will be eternal - assured not only by her serial record-breaking on the pitch, but by the fight she is leading from the sidelines, championing the ongoing battle for women’s football and female empowerment with the sort of industry that earned the name that will live forever in the Brazilian game.

“The nickname came from a supporter, when I began playing football, back in Salvador. It was my first tournament, I think I was 13 then”, Formiga 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.

“I was the shortest girl in my class and I ran all over the pitch. So he thought the nickname matched the way I played”

The Ant is yet to slow since overcoming every obstacle in her path, the first of which arrived on her own doorstep. Born to a humble family, the only girl among five children, the difficulties  of becoming a female footballer in a universe dominated by men was made clear from the outset.

“I went through some hard times. My brothers didn’t like that I played football with the other boys. They got jealous, because I was way better than them and their classmates joked about it. Then they said things like ‘football isn’t for women.’

It would take a great deal more than that, however, to deter Formiga from chasing her dream. Thankfully, young Miraildes found more encouragement from the matriarch of the house.

“My mother always supported me. ‘Go!’, she used to tell me. I think it was because she couldn’t stay at home, she was out working every day.”

That support was fundamental, she insists, as all around her girls gave up on their dreams, fearing the harassment and criticism that accompanied their love for the 'Beautiful Game'.

"They were afraid. Sometimes I would go to their homes to invite them (to play), and they’d say ‘No, I can’t go, my dad will kill me’, ‘You know, my mum...’ and things like that. And they were talented, everyone could see that.

“But, unfortunately, that fear of being of prejudice was always there. It’s not easy to deal with the harassment, particularly when not only does it come from others, but from inside your own home. That made so many girls give up their dreams.”

Formiga battled on, and that leaving it all behind and fleeing to the Salvador suburbs, beginning what would become a momentous career EC Bahia before heading south to Sao Paulo. Her new home offered living quarters for players. Away from her family for the first time, Formiga had to learn fast.

“My biggest challenge was living by myself, I think. In Sao Paulo, so far away from my family… I suffered a lot back home, but you miss your family the most when they’re not there.

“It’s like losing your foundations, and that’s family whether you like it or not. No matter what, you can count on your mother to provide a shoulder to cry on, to put food on the table.”

The homesickness, however, only made her work harder, and helped prepare her for the sort of globetrotting career that is crucial to any woman’s goal of sustaining a professional football career.“

It’s funny because it’s very hard to keep playing professionally in this constantly-changing sport. Sometimes women’s football peaks in Brazil and you get your hopes up, expecting better things. ‘Wow, now it’s our time, let’s go!’ And then, after the tournaments, it’s back to square one and you’re left clueless.”

The 2004 Olympics provided a case in point. Formiga and her colleagues were lauded around the country for their silver medal, but there was no legacy or lasting impact.

“After the silver medal at the 2004 Olympics, we really believed things would finally get better. But then it was gone again, it was like women’s football didn’t exist in Brazil. And that leaves you shocked... just like that,  it’s gone! I remember asking, ‘What’s going on? How can this happen?’ Those things, you feel let down.

“There’s no proper work done to ensure we kick on and bring through new generations here in Brazil, there simply isn’t. We can see that happening abroad, while here we still face the same challenges as before. It’s hard.”

That’s why, at 41, Formiga is in France this month hoping to lead the Selecao to their first ever Women’s World Cup. Nothing gives her as much pride as representing her country, but the reality is that she shouldn't even really be there.

“Honestly, I would prefer to be at home right now, playing for a club, watching a new and exciting young Selecao, had any sort renovation process actually taken place. We have to be here still, you know? For me to be here, though, defending this shirt, that gives me great pride and huge satisfaction, no doubt about it.”

Formiga, however, can see some signs of progress, and is hopeful that women’s football will see better days in her country.

“We have some clubs in Brazil where players have workers’ rights and are being properly appreciated, which is important. There are big clubs with female teams, even if they are obliged to have then. Unfortunately it’s not all of them, but it’s a start, and we’ll get there eventually."

She has already attracted plaudits for her showing at France 2019, rightfully seeing her career celebrated by those who recognise her incredible legacy in the sport. But for Formiga, it seems, her biggest achievements are yet to come.

“I don’t want to be remembered as the player who played for so many years, who was at all those Olympic Games and World Cups, but as someone who fought for improvements in women’s football in my country. My goal is not to receive thousands of tributes and homages and, well,  if that was the case, then I would rather see all that go into making things better for women’s football.

“Only those of us who went through hell know what we had to endure to get to the point we are today.”

And few are better placed than Formiga to lead the fight. First off, she has a seventh World Cup to play, of course, but then the real work can start.

Plan International UK is a global children’s charity. We work to give every child the same chance in life.