‘Do other Martas exist?’ | In ‘machista’ Brazilian culture, one cannot be sure


A young Flamengo fan in the Maracanã celebrates Marta’s exploits at the Pan American Games in July. The sign reads, with reference to the Rio-based scarlet-and-black, “Marta in the Mengão is the solution.” (© 2007 Infoglobo S/A)

Rio de Janeiro | Late last year we spent several days compiling 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 (Marta, Pelé’s Cousin), that featured dialogue in Portuguese and subtitles in Swedish. Such is the sparseness of the English-language record.

Little did we know that Marta, 21, has her own biographer—Argentine journalist Diego Graciano, who since 2004 has been assembling the story of Brazil’s greatest female player and a potentially galvanizing figure in lifting women’s status in her country. With her exploits in the cathedral of Brazilian futebol in July, leading the team to a Pan American Games gold medal with 12 goals and having her footprints calcified in the Maracanã’s Walk of Fame (25 Jul 07), she pushed herself into Brazil’s male-dominated sporting consciousness. (Click the link below to hear an account, in Brazilian radio broadcasting’s signature reverb, of the side’s fourth goal in the Jul 26 final, a 5–0 victory over the U.S. U-20 team. Marta scores on a spot kick.)

To find interest in his book, however, Graciano may have to rely on another superhuman performance from Marta in China and a Brazilian championship. As it stands, as Graciano writes in a recent e-mail interview (see below), “[T]here is not much interest from Brazilian publishers in having her life in their collections.” Marta and her teammates have been advocating for a Brazilian league, but they are battling institutional inertia and a history that banned soccer for women until 1979. The federal government beginning in the 1980s limited sponsorship opportunities for women and prevented their competitions from being held at athletic grounds, consigning them to, in many cases, the beaches in Rio.

Copacabana Beach, in fact, in 1981 served as the venue for the first women’s tournament. The strongest women’s side through much of the 1980s, Esporte Clube Radar, used the beach as its home ground. Opposition to women playing football has been constant. The challenges range from the physical—Marta reports that her brother hit her when he found she was playing, and BBC columnist Tim Vickery‘s girlfriend says she got similar lashings from her father (BBC Sport, Sept 10)—to the subtly patronizing gender stereotypes that frame women, in the main, as an object of the male gaze or as devoted disciples of home and church.

“Today, when I came into the field, I heard a guy say that I should be at a laundry sink, washing clothes,” said a Radar player in 1984. “But I did not bother to reply to him, although I was angry. My reaction came later, with the ball at my feet.”

Writing in 1983, Janet Lever witnesses the stirrings of interest in women’s soccer and sees the game as a social agent for starting to break down the “sexual apartheid” characterizing Brazilian society. She notices the large numbers of women who wager in the national sport lottery, yet comments that the women did not yet feel welcome as spectators:

Women and girls have stayed away from stadia to “protect their reputations” and have avoided beach soccer and park games because of the coarse language and rowdy crowds. … As it is now, men and women have different interests. The men I talked with insisted that their wives have the church and they have soccer. In traditional parts of Brazil, church is the one place women are trusted to go unescorted. It is a safe world for women, giving them freedom of movement to organize charities, fund-raisers, and social events. Unlike men’s interest in soccer, however, women’s churchgoing keeps them close to home. The church does not expand their horizon beyond family and neighborhood. While they share worldwide symbols of Catholicism, women’s localized activities do little to integrate them into metropolitan or national life. (154)

At an informal women’s world championship in Brazil in 1985, the country had no women’s national team. The Radar club represented the country instead. In 1988, at another world women’s championship, the national selection finished third. From its ninth-place finish in the first FIFA Women’s World Cup in China in 1991, Brazil has shown continued improvement, although not as much as might have been expected.

Former coach Rene Simoes tells Vickery that national support from the women’s team is “almost non-existent.” Following a silver-medal performance in Athens in 2004, the team sat idle for two years. Simoes says that “we can only hope for a miracle” in China this month. Pledges for a national women’s league have yet to be realized with 2008, according to Graciano, set as the next potential target.

“There are lots of girls, lots of Martas all over Brazil wanting to play football,” says Marta, who competes for Umeå IK in the Damallsvenskan, the top Swedish women’s division. “I can’t play in my own country.” “The boys want the field to be only for them,” echoes Vanessa da Silva Oliveira, 14, a child laborer offered to chance to play soccer through a UNICEF-backed program in Olinda, Pernambuco (“Football Helps Girls in Brazil Put Exploitation behind Them”).

The paradox is that Brazil, having been tarred with Third World status for much of its recent history, stands as a leading cultural force in social change, liberation theology, education and especially music—in many of the transformative arts. Musician Caetano Veloso—like Marta and “Tropicalia” movement co-founder Gilberto Gil, from the country’s northeast—says in a 2003 documentary that national progress has not finished:

I’d say that some optimism is possible in Brazil. And this very little thing is an enormous reality. Because if some little optimism is possible about this monster, it’s really something. Because if you dream of something really good coming from Brazil, some affirmation of what we are, it could be enormous. We are southern hemisphere, non-white, poor, speaking Portuguese—it’s too much. It’s too many disadvantages not to be considered a blessing when you have a little optimism. If you have the slightest optimism about Brazil, all that looks like a blessing, a unique opportunity to make a big gesture, a historical gesture.


Marta with biographer Graciano in her home state of Alagoas, an “intense stay” that surpassed Graciano’s “professional and human expectations.”

Interview with Diego Graciano

GG: Has your biography of Martia Vieira da Silva been published and, if so, what are the details: publisher, date and so on?

DG: The biography is finished. I began to write it in April 2004 when Marta was not even known in Brazil. In December of that year we met for the first time, and Marta was glad and grateful to see somebody from the Brazilian press—she was and is very popular in Europe and the USA—interested in her life and willing to tell her story. I felt honored to share one week in her Dois Riachos, the extremely poor place where she was born, due to the reception of the people there and her own family. This intense stay surpassed my professional and human expectations. I have interviewed stars like Mia Hamm, April Heinrichs and Hanna Ljungberg, among other personalities of the sport, [for their opinions on Marta]. There have been almost 70 interviews. I went across Brazil to reconstruct her story, and I have around 300 photos of her life never published. In spite of the Pan American Games and the success, there is not much interest from Brazilian publishers in having her life in their collections.

GG: Pictures on your website show you interviewing Marta in Dois Riachos in the Sertão in 2004. Have you been in regular contact with Marta, and is there interest in the Brazilian media in Marta as a personality?

DG: I have personally interviewed Marta in Dois Riachos, Rio de Janeiro, Chile and many other times by telephone and via e-mail. For several years the media has ignored Marta and female soccer. Brazil is the country of the soccer of the Ronaldos, Robinho, Romario, Zico, Kaká and so on. After the latest Rio Pan American Games (from now on referred to as “Pan”), the media took advantage of that glory to publicize, in a small way, an activity that was despised until that time.

GG: What have you learned further about a women’s football league in Brazil? Will it be fully professional? Will it be affiliated to teams in the first division: Vasco, Flamengo, Fluminense, Botafogo, São Paulo and so on?

DG: The kickoff for a national league in Brazil has always ended up in promises, no facts. Now they say again that it will become reality in 2008. For the time being female soccer players need to work somewhere else to survive, in addition to being marginalized in a culture that is male-oriented (“machista”) by nature. Some traditional clubs have too many problems with their male teams at the moment, which makes it more difficult to invest in (or just to think of) the female option. In spite of the difficult scenario, the Brazilian female soccer team leads the Latin America rankings and is among the highest positions in the world rankings. Just imagine what would happen if those ladies were encouraged [with their own league].

GG: What is the importance of the recent Pan American Games championship for (1) the confidence of the Brazilian women’s team and (2) for the development of women’s football in Brazil?

DG: A clear perception you can have about the Brazilian female team is of the “individualistic” spirit whenever Brazil plays any international competition. Each one of them needs to be seen by the world; each is “fighting” for her own possible transfer to other countries where they can be respected and valued. Without any real economic compensation, the most important aspect for them (during the Pan) was the approval from that public that—leaving aside some ancestral paradigms against female and football—was there to support and to start to appreciate their quality. In Brazil there is an intense search for new talents and, without doubt, there would appear to be some other Pretinhas, Formigas, Cristianes, Danielas … but do other Martas exist? In the same way, we know that there is not another Pelé or another Maradona.

GG: Marta had a stunning performance in the Pan Am Games, appearing before large crowds in the Maracanã and having her footprints taken for the walk of fame. How large an impact has Marta had personally on the consciousness of the Brazilian football fan?

DG: As I closely know Marta’s fight, I feel very happy myself in seeing her loved by her people and being recognized in her country. After the excitement of the Maracanã celebrations, some fans interviewed by the television said things like “Marta, you must be number 10 of the Flamengo,” “Dunga, please consider seriously Marta as number 10 for the men’s team”—for the very first time in open media for all Brazil. If things went on this same way, we might not be surprised to find some children who play in favelas today wearing Marta’s T-shirt instead of that of Ronaldo. Speaking in “soccer” language, Marta’s level could not be appreciated in the limited scope of a Pan. Only in the World Cup of China this year will her talent be more fully used and taken to [its] highest expression. In this context, however, her favored left leg may still find it very difficult to gain an advantage. (My apologies if I exaggerate but she can be compared to Maradona in this aspect.)

GG: Will World Cup matches be broadcast live in Brazil? What impact would a World Cup championship have on the Brazilian public?

DG: It is not difficult to guess that this may be the most marketed worldwide feminine championship in history and with greater impact in the United States and the Scandinavian countries. I believe that the most important media of Brazil will broadcast [the games] after the repercussions of the latest Pan. The audience in Brazil will depend upon the success of the Brazilian selection. And with no doubts this will be “Marta’s World Cup.”

Sources

Janet Lever, Soccer Madness (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 71–72, 153–55; Sebastião Votre and Ludmila Mourão, “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, Sport in the Global Society (London and Portland, Oreg.: Frank Cass, 2004), 254–67.

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The 2005 documentary, Marta—Pelé’s kusin, that appeared on Swedish public television. Marta tries capoeira, goes angling and gets stopped by Umeå-area constables on what appears to be a routine traffic stop. In Swedish and Portuguese with Swedish subtitles. (© 2005 Sveriges Television AB, 28:41)

Updates

  • Named FIFA’s World Player of the Year for the second straight time on Dec 17, Marta tells an interviewer that she should not remain the only woman to have left her footprints in the Maracanã’s Hall of Fame. “Hopefully, we’ll see more women’s feet there in the future.”
  • Confederação Brasileira de Futebol, immediately following Brazil’s 4–0 semifinal victory over the United States, announced that a national cup competition for women, the Copa do Brasil Feminino, would be contested beginning in late October (“CBF promove Copa do Brasil de Futebol Feminino,” CBF News, Sept 27).
  • In her World Cup weblog at the website of sponsors Puma, Marta says that Brazil are “eating, breathing, and sleeping each game that we play.” Pre-game preparation for the Sept 27 semifinal versus the United States included two helpings of feijoada, a meat and black-bean stew that is considered Brazil’s national dish.

    Of the Pan Am experience, Marta writes, “For the first time the women’s National Team had the chance to show our country our potential, and we gave them a lot to be excited about! Entering the Maracana Stadium and hearing the 70,000 people in the crowd is exciting and at the same time a bit overwhelming. There were times during the game where I could hear the crowd yelling my name. …”

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.

Comments (9)

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  1. [...] Our open thread on the Women’s World Cup has certainly thrown up highly contrasting opinions, and this blog welcomes honest takes from all quarters. But perhaps the most interesting perspective on it I’ve seen so far comes from the Global Game blog, which features an interview with the biographer of Brazilian star Marta. [...]

  2. Paulo Semeghini says:

    As a Brazilian I would like to thank a Diego Graciano for this kind of work. Thanks, Diego!

  3. Dario Borim says:

    Thanks for the wonderful, well-informed article and interview. I am a Brazilian soccer fan with the highest respect for people who not only play the game well but also fight for the sport’s development at all levels. I have even greater respect for those who see in soccer and other sports the opportunity to unite and teach people about injustice and inequality of opportunities. Marta’s talent is enormous, superlative, and she does play with other excellent players. Let’s hope that the Brazilian women that now receive a bit more attention from the media and the authorities, and, in fact, all the world’s women interested in soccer and other sports, have the support to move on and reach their best and do their best for the eradication of prejudice and disdain.

  4. Trevor Williams says:

    I do believe that the female game is growing, Marta has done her part and so must the others continue. It’s time the Brazilian authorities examine this fact and act. Thanks to Diego Graciano, and by the way I am Guyanese.

  5. Kicy says:

    Does anyone know where I could get a copy of Pele’s Kusin?

  6. Thanks very much for the question, Kicy.

    You may watch the documentary, via Swedish television, through this link. Disable pop-up blockers, and click on the link “Dokumentär: Marta – Pelés kusin.” (Or, we have linked to the SVT stream within the Windows Media Player above.)

    The film is in Portuguese and Swedish, with Swedish subtitles. Please let me know if you have any trouble.

    As to obtaining a permanent copy, on DVD, I suppose you could query SVT. To my knowledge, such a copy is not available.

  7. [...] and frequent links with high-profile international players such as Women’s World Cup stars Marta and Cristiane of Brazil, Cynthia Uwak of Nigeria and Inka Grings of [...]

  8. [...] (see our own skeleton biography, 28 Dec 06, as well as an earlier interview with Graciano, 12 Sept 07). Originally from Argentina, Graciano conceived of the biography soon after moving to São Paulo. [...]

  9. [...] A package of articles published Oct 5 on Brazilian Web portal Terra details the unique pressures facing Diego Graciano in promoting his biography of sensational 22-year-old Marta Vieira da Silva (see earlier articles, Sept 15 and 12 Sept 07). [...]

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