’Tis the season for tears | The extraordinary, untold story of Marta Vieira da Silva

Marta flashes the FIFA Women’s
Player of the Year trophy on arrival
in Rio de Janeiro on Dec 20. (Wilton
 | AP, via Agência Estado)

Dois Riachos, Brazil | Marta Vieira da Silva, proclaimed by FIFA on Dec 18 as the best player in women’s soccer, has been on the road for much of the past six years. Beginning at 14, when she followed a path from the nordeste to Rio de Janeiro, seeking opportunity with Vasco da Gama, she has played around the world for age-group and the full Brazilian national team and now, professionally, for Umeå IK in Sweden. The journey took her to the Zurich Opera House last Monday night—welcomed by women in heavy mascara and period dress as part of a tribute to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart—back to Rio on Wednesday, to a firetruck-led cavalcade in Alagoas capital Maceió on Thursday, then home to the Sertão scrubland for a holiday respite.

Yesterday, Dec 27, she had foot imprints taken for the hall of fame at the Museu dos Esportes Edvaldo Alves Santa Rosa at the Estádio Rei Pelé in Maceió (see video from Globo.com).

Such jarring intersections must be common for the 5-foot-3 (1.6m), left-footed playmaker. Already, at 20, she has a worldly bearing and pulls the prodigy’s trick of seeming older. Her story has been pieced together in English-language sources, from which one can skim that, in a provincial town in Brazil’s Northeast, Dois Riachos (meaning “two streams”), she battled from as young as 7 “for her right to play her tricks in the street games with the boys” (Rob Hughes, “Good Taste Barely Survives a Night at the Opera,” International Herald Tribune, Dec 19).

The non-English materials to which one must turn for a fuller picture, especially the 2005 documentary produced by Sveriges Television (SVT), Marta—Pelés Kusin (Marta—Pelé‘s Cousin), show Marta’s background in its complexity: the perennially water-challenged “backlands” area, more than 1,000 miles northeast of the country’s political and tourist centers, that provides her cultural backing and character; the ever cycling narrative of displacement and reunion; and the negotiations with identity required by excelling as a woman at a male-dominated sport, accentuated by knowing that soccer for women in Brazil was banned until 1979—seven years before Marta’s birth.

The Sertão, in which Dois Riachos is situated, is the world’s most populous semi-arid region. “Some 10 million people live in a rural area that includes 1,209 municipalities in nine states,” writes Ricardo Funari (“Drought and Hope in the Sertão,” Hemisphere: A Magazine of the Americas [Latin American and Caribbean Center, Florida International University], summer 2005, 30).

The Swedish documentary, reported by Björn Nordling and photographed by Mattias Pettersson, opens with the blond interlopers seeking Marta by automobile on the semi-arid ground spotted with caatinga, the forest of thorns that shows as white in satellite images. In the midst of hard, colored earth, bare land is commandeered, lines drawn, goal nets erected, and soon Marta is joking with and watching players from Centro Sportivo Alagoano, with whom she started her career. There is no grass. A public-address announcer’s voice—cries of gol—blasts from coned speakers atop a white van.

At other moments Marta, accompanied by Astrud Gilberto‘s “Beach Samba,” plays futebol de salão, or futsal, on a hard court. The footage recalls the grainy home movies of Ronaldinho, aired as part of an advertising campaign during last summer’s World Cup, playing the small-ball, small-sided variant of feints and ball trickery, in which the sole and heel are as important as the instep. For innumerable Brazilian players, futsal has helped develop close control and technical skills. For women, futsal sometimes offers the only chance to play the national game.

Capoeira is described as conversation
between two players. “After two minutes
of physical parry,” writes Paula Bock in
a 2005 Seattle Times report (“Master
of Brazilian Dance Has Come a Long
,” 14 Nov 05), “you know more
about strangers than if you’d talked with
them for a half hour at a party.” (Centro
de Capoeira Beija-Flor, São Paulo

Also in the SVT documentary, Marta attempts a brief roda, the circle that forms the basis of the Brazilian martial art capoeira, with countrywoman and Umeå teammate Elaine. Marta demonstrates knowledge of these traditional cultural forms, playing guitar during a documentary outtake and singing a ballad in Portuguese (see excerpt at the SVT website). Capoeira, seen as a fusion of music, dance and self-expression prefiguring the Brazilian attraction to futebol arte, developed within Afro-Brazilian slave societies, nurtured in particular in the Northeast within breakaway communes (quilombos) beginning in the 17th century. Banned by Brazilian authorities late in the 19th century, capoeira eventually returned and attracted a spiritual following. Modern-day academies in Brazil and elsewhere emphasize the art’s place in personal transformation and in helping practitioners to take a more active role in life.

“Sometimes some students come to class, they didn’t even say hi,” says Mestre Curisco, organizer of a Seattle academy. “You gotta try to get them into a conversation. Sometimes they need a little more love, attention, like a friend. … You gotta express yourself.”

Whether Marta sought expression through these pursuits, or whether they were passed to her as part of daily life, is not known. She has said that she began playing football naturally, not as a conscious decision (“Marta Blends Speed and Technique,” FIFA.com, 29 Nov 06). One wonders how she would have fared in Dois Riachos had she not been brilliant—better than the boys and men in her age group—at her game. Economic and educational opportunities are limited. The land hoarding of the colonial-era latifúndio system has yet to be fully addressed by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, himself from a neighboring state, Pernambuco, to the north.

Marta has imprints of her feet taken
at Estádio Rei Pelé in Maceió on Dec 27.
Maceió native Adriano Gabiru of
FIFA World Club champion
Internacional was also inducted into
the Alagoas hall of fame. (O Jornal

In Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life (Bloomsbury, 2002), Alex Bellos recalls visiting a sugar estate in Alagoas in 1999, 10,000 people operating a latifúndio the size of Manhattan. “Most of the estate’s inhabitants,” Bellos writes, “cut the cane with their hands and were earning about £10 for a seven-day week. Not slavery, but almost.” He notes that to its status as the world’s leading exporter of sugar and coffee, Brazil leads the globe in sending footballers abroad: 850 per year as of 2005.

Marta has joined the outward flow, but she had little choice. Brazil has no professional league for women, only a loose network of state-based amateur teams playing on an ad hoc basis. With the Women’s United Soccer Association in the United States—a vehicle for Brazilian stars such as Daniela, Katia, Pretinha and Sissi—having gone bankrupt in 2003, Marta joined Umeå in 2004. On arrival in the northeastern Swedish town some 170 miles south of the Arctic Circle, she juggled a ball next to prodigious snowbanks. In her most recent match, a 6–0 victory over Norway’s Kolbotn IL in a UEFA Women’s Cup semifinal on Nov 12, she scored twice, once with each foot, in steadily falling snow (see highlights from SVT). Umeå play Arsenal of London in a two-leg final, 21 and 29 Apr 07.

Marta—Pelés Kusin deliberately juxtaposes the frigid Swedish surround and Marta’s native Sertão. In Umeå she drives a car from club sponsor Volkswagen, her name and number emblazoned on the side; she laughs through Swedish-language exercises in a computer lab; she appears to catch her first fish, accompanied by much screaming. Whether or not she feels completely at home, she has flourished as striker. She scored 20 goals in 22 games in the 2006 season, second in the league, with Umeå dominating the Damallsvenskan table. Umeå cruised through the 12-team league unbeaten, 21 points clear of Djurgården of Älvsjö. They scored 74 goals and allowed 11. The only setback was a loss in the Swedish Cup final.

With Fabiano Farah as her agent—Farah also represents Ronaldo—Marta earlier in the year sent feelers to clubs in Germany, Sweden and the United States. Shek Borkowski, manager of FC Indiana of the Women’s Premier Soccer League, confirmed that the Goshen-based side with an international roster had been in contact with Farah. Two weeks ago, however, Umeå announced that Marta would re-sign through the 2007 season for an amount believed to range between $75,000 and $85,000 over 10 months (“Så mycket tjänar Marta i UIK,” Västerbottens-Kuriren, Dec 14).

The typical forró trio, consisting of zabumba, accordion and triangle, in sculpture form in Caruaru, Pernambuco. The term “forró” encompasses various forms of dance music in northeastern Brazil. Marta “wakes up listening to that music,” said goalkeeper Andreia in 2003.

The tears that came from Marta on arrival at Galeão–Antônio Carlos Jobim International Airport in Rio on Dec 20 and at the Dec 27 hall-of-fame induction ceremony in Maceió nevertheless show that her passion is to play for the Seleção, when she can best express her dearly held cultural and family connections. Part of the curse of having to play abroad is the resulting tug between club and country. Umeå, for example, barred Marta from participating in the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Championship in Russia in August, the last year of her eligibility for the age-group event. Brazil finished third.

But Marta’s club hardly presents her biggest hindrance. That may be, curiously, her home country, which despite its cultural riches and gifts of authenticity creates difficult conditions for women trying to break out of the gender trap. On a personal level, Marta had the constraints of family and region to deal with. In the SVT documentary, Marta’s mother, Tereza Vieira, confirms that Marta’s brother José would hit her to try to prevent her from playing. Tereza intervened. Lack of facilities and supervision was a reality for everyone. Children pictured in Marta—Pelés Kusin play football in an uneven streambed—perhaps one of the dry streams that gives Dois Riachos its name—beneath a highway overpass.

As to the broader reality of women’s football in Brazil, the joke goes that God, while blessing the country with the world’s greatest footballers, added the worst administrators to the mix. One must wonder what the Confederação Brasileira de Futebol could have been thinking following the women’s team’s silver medal at the 2004 Olympic Games. From that day, 26 Aug 04—on which Brazil outperformed the USA but lost in extra time, 1–2—to 28 Oct 06, the opening round of the 2006 Peace Queen Cup in South Korea, the full women’s side did not play a competitive international. They have reached the 2007 Women’s World Cup in China, but lost to Argentina, 0–2, on Nov 26 in the final of the CONMEBOL qualifying tournament.

For more than two years, therefore, the senior women’s program in Brazil was moribund, especially troubling since several members of the Seleção do not have club teams to play for. After receiving the player-of-the-year award last week, Marta rapped the CBF for failing to promote the women’s game. She has joined a chorus of detractors, including the former wearer of the women’s No. 10 jersey, Sisleide do Amor Lima, or Sissi. In an interview with FIFA in March, Sissi said there had been no change to the administrators’ lack of interest in women’s soccer:

The only way that the girls could actually get to play was by going back to school or by playing futsal. There is so much talent in the country, and we proved that in Athens. But if you asked somebody on the street in Brazil who Marta was, hardly anyone would know that she’s the number two player in the world. It’s all down to chauvinism, since everything is still focused on the men’s game.

Sissi’s passion was such that she ripped the heads off her dolls in order to play football, an important metaphor in a sporting culture that still tries to position female players as objects of the male gaze (“Sissi: ‘My Dream Is to Coach Brazil,’ ” FIFA.com, 1 Mar 06). This is done subtly, such as in media reports that emphasize “the anecdotal and esoteric features of … ‘fragile’ women’s football,” according to Sebastião Votre and Ludmila Mourão, faculty members at Universidade Gama Filho in Rio de Janeiro, in a 2004 article (“Women’s Football in Brazil: Progress and Problems,” in Soccer, Women, Sexual Liberation: Kicking Off a New Era, ed. Fan Hong and J. A. Mangan [Frank Cass, 2004], 254–67). Or, more overtly, women can be set aside as ornaments, as adjuncts to the competition.

Cabruêra’s “Canção Pra Ninar,” representing the Mangue Beat movement, accompanies video from the documentary Peladão—Soccer Teams and Beauty Queens. The film concerns the annual Amazonas event translated as the “Big Kickabout.” Teams are required to field entrants in the football tournament and the parallel beauty pageant. (Calabash Music, 26 Dec 06)

The linkage is most obvious in the annual Peladão, the grassroots tournament based in Manaus along the River Amazon. Several hundred teams enter, with the interesting caveat that they must also sponsor an entrant in a companion beauty contest. If a team is eliminated, it can return to the competition as long as its beauty-pageant contestant continues to advance. The women are scrutinized on local television and anoint themselves with almond oil before parading for the cameras. The pairing of women’s sexuality and football takes on a regional context, writes Bellos in Futebol:

The Amazon hardly has an event that doesn’t include an ambassadorial role for attractive young women. The carnival has its queen, as do the festival days of saint Peter, Anthony and John in June. And each rainforest municipality has a queen tied to its principal agricultural product. Coari has a banana queen, Maués has a guaraná queen, and so on for oranges in Anori, milk in Autazes, açaí­ in Codajás and cupuaçu in Presidente Figueiredo. It seems only natural that football has one too.

Marta, in the broad cultural frame of Brazilian life, takes on, at 20, the shape of a new model for Brazilian womanhood. She does this almost in antithesis to the images that Votre and Mourão assemble from coverage of women’s football in the 1980s, that of women players as samba dancers, hair decorated in beads and dressed in appealing colors. O Jornal Alagoas, the local newspaper based in Maceió, refers to Marta in its coverage of recent events as a craque, a term of near reverence that carries the connotation of “star” but, more important, something like “a player of substance.” Whether Marta’s tearful, affecting statements before the glitterati in Zurich will mean additional transformations in Brazilian life and wider influence for the magical player from the Sertão will be a story to follow throughout her career.

Additional sources

Globo.com presents a feature on Marta’a life in Umeå (“A vida de Marta na pequena Umea”), including a brief tour of her Umeå apartment, or “crib.” Via YouTube, one can view the Dec 18 FIFA gala, the women’s portion, including a Marta highlights package, moronic pre-award Q&A and operatic serenading.

After her arrival in the Sertão on Dec 21, Globo.com (“Marta já foi reserva no time onde começou”) catches up with her before a match involving Centro Sportivo Alagoano, kitted out in blue-and-white stripes. Back in Sweden, Marta carries enough cultural cache to have had a soccer-playing dog named in her honor (see our report on soccer and dogs, 20 Jul 06). SVT has the video.

The influences of the nordeste on Brazilian music—itself part of the cultural dynamic that includes futebol—are chronicled in a six-CD set, Musica Tradicional do Norte e Nordeste 1938, reviewed in the New York Times (Larry Rohter, “Long-Lost Trove of Music Connects Brazil to Its Roots,” 25 Jan 07).

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

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  1. [...] The Global Game has pieced together an incredible and inspirational biography of the 5′3″ Brazilian 20-year-old prodigy Marta Vieira da Silva. Here’s just a glimpse: “Marta’s background [is complex]: the perennially water-challenged “backlands” area, more than 1,000 miles northeast of the country’s political and tourist centers, that provides her cultural backing and character; the ever cycling narrative of displacement and reunion; and the negotiations with identity required by excelling as a woman at a male-dominated sport, accentuated by knowing that soccer for women in Brazil was banned until 1979—seven years before Marta’s birth.” David Sasaki [...]

  2. [...] one of the world’s best-known players, Marta Vieira da Silva of Dois Riachos, Brazil (see 28 Dec 06)—and that they were scored at a “lesser” football competition, the 15th Pan American [...]

  3. Diego Graciano é jornalista argentino residente no Brasil. Autor da biografí­a da Marta Vieira da Silva.

  4. [...] a sketchy life history of Brazil’s superior playmaking talent Marta Vieira da Silva (28 Dec 06). For our impressions we relied mainly on a Swedish documentary, Marta—Pelés kusin [...]


    Nobody should write anything about Marta without previously checking out The Global Game article on her. Summum journalism!

    Regina Maria Pinto de Moraes Bollick
    High Court Judge
    Rio Grande do Sul

  6. [...] of putting Marta’s life in book form has been agonizing (see our own skeleton biography, 28 Dec 06, as well as an earlier interview with Graciano, 12 Sept 07). Originally from Argentina, Graciano [...]

  7. [...] Messi won the FIFA Men’s Player of the Year Award, and Marta won the FIFA Women’s Player of the Year Award, and no-one was surprised. But should we have [...]

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