THE QUEEN OF FOOTBALL
By Raisa Simplicio
Recently in Brazil, a discussion took place to elect the best football player in the country after Pele. The likes of Garrincha, Rivellino, Zico and even Neymar were among the names discussed, but not once did they mention Marta, a six-time World Player of the Year recipient and the country’s all-time top goalscorer among both women and men.
But the girl from Dois Riachos, deep in the countryside of Alagoas, one of Brazil’s most deprived states, has had to overcome much more than just being occasionally overlooked by a few casual onlookers.
Marta Vieira da Silva was forced to dribble past adversities right from her beginnings. Growing up without a father, who left the family when she was only one year old, the future queen of Brazilian football also had to endure poverty, hunger and even prejudice from her own brothers, who disapproved of their little sister playing with a ball rather than dolls.
“There were many obstacles, my mother raised all her children by herself and couldn’t afford football boots for me,” Marta told Goal. “But I’ve never lost the drive to win, to pursue my dreams.”
While some were not as supportive, Marta’s mother and grandmother made sure she refused to give up. At the age of just 14, Marta left behind the dirt pitches of Alagoas for bright lights of Rio de Janeiro, taking with her little more than a dream: To one day be able to make a living doing the thing she loved most.
“It’s like a movie in my head. I remember my early career back in Dois Riachos and how hard it was when I started in football. I left home very early, hopping on a bus to Rio in the hope of playing for Vasco.”
The trip took just under three days, an epic beginning to the most epic of Brazilian fairy-tales. And it was there, in the Cidade Maravilhosa, where her life would change forever. No sooner had Marta arrived did she find herself adrift on Ilha do Governador, participating in a trial for Vasco under the watchful eyes of Helena - then Vasco coach - and Meg, a former Brazil international goalkeeper who played at the 1996 Olympics. Aware of the chance she was being given, she played like… well, as she played like Marta.
She dribbled past every opponent on the pitch and hit goal after goal, leaving all those in attendance with the impression that they had just seen something very, very special. Marta was raised in Alagoas, but her legend was born one sunny Tuesday morning on the Guanabara Bay.
“Everything in my career happened very fast. I joined the Selecao at an early age and then I went to play in Sweden.” Indeed, the future Queen of Football saw her life change drastically following that initial trial. Just three years on, Marta was leading Brazil in her first World Cup.
Her performances would drive the Canarinho to third place in USA 2003. Three years later, she claimed the first of six FIFA Player of the Year awards. Brazil loves nothing more than a winner, and Marta claimed not only their hearts, but also played a major role in changing the perception of women’s football in the sport's most successful country.
Some couldn’t believe that a woman was able to do what Marta did; others just sat back enjoyed one mesmerising performance after another. More importantly, however, in Marta the next generation had a role model, someone to whom they could aspire, and confirmation that their dreams, too, could one day come true in a sport no longer reserved solely for men.
“Marta is the biggest name in women’s football, she won so we could get to the level we are today”, says Thais Monteiro, an attacking midfielder for Grota de Niteroi.
“Everything we have achieved in the game came through her, even if women’s football existed before. Her life story is unmatched, having overcome each and every obstacle as she did.”
Marta’s personal achievements in the game remain unparalleled, with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi unable to match her six crowns, while even Pele cannot claim to have scored more goals for Brazil. 15 of those goals arrived over four World Cup tournaments, surpassing a record that once belonged to former strikers Birgit Prinz and Abby Wambach. And this year, Marta heads to the World Cup in France with her eyes set firmly on Miroslav Klose’s record of 16 goals on the biggest stage of them all.
But Marta’s achievements are not restricted to only her on-field heroics, She’s a UN Ambassador, and recently became the first woman to have her feet eternalised at the Maracana’s Walk of Fame.
“I believe I have a very important mission, which is to represent women’s football”, Marta insists. “We’ve been working for that, though that’s not just because of me, but every teammate I’ve had for the Selecao and at club level, and all the people who have left a mark on my career. And I embrace that mission now, committed to showing the younger players just how important it is to represent Brazil.
“And I do the same for my club, Orlando Pride. I always strive to maintain that drive to win - that’s something no athlete can do without - and also to represent all women with my role as UN Ambassador for Women.
For all her records and on- and off-field achievements, however, it is worth noting that even the Queen of the women’s game is yet to receive anything like the financial recognition of her male counterparts. Marta’s basic annual salary is less than Lionel Messi makes in a week.
But women’s football is moving forward in that regard and there have been few greater pioneers for the sport than Marta, whose only concern is to keep fighting for a better future for all the girls who want to follow in her footsteps.
“Never give up on your dreams,” she says. “The road may be a little difficult, but never give up.” Marta never did – and she became the best that ever did it, regardless of whether a few pundits remember to mention her name alongside that of Pele.