’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 Júnior | 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).

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