Books | Born in ‘invisible town,’ Marta gains life in visible ink

Perhaps the only footballer’s biography to contain poetry by Pablo Neruda (“La reina,” or “The Queen,” from The Captain’s Verses), alongside a picture that Graciano composed of Marta, wearing a crown, and her mother, Dona Tereza. “A playful act clothed in truth,” writes Iraci Nogueira, in the preface, of the photograph.

Diego Graciano makes clear in the title of his biography the struggle of Marta Vieira da Silva against cultural norms. Você é mulher, Marta! (You Are a Woman, Marta!)—the book that Graciano has self-published, following single-minded pursuit of the story of the world’s greatest woman footballer—alludes to Marta’s mother’s reply when, as a girl, Marta asked her for a real ball.

“I said, ‘You are a woman, Marta!’ ” recalls Dona Tereza Vieira de Sá, with the intervening “but” strongly implied.

So Marta had to override initial objections to even the most basic requests, this request made of her strongest supporter. “Marta would abandon everything for her dream of playing soccer,” Graciano writes in a prologue (see translation), “the person most beloved, her mother, and the tradition most odious, the phantom of submission, which still makes many women feel like prisoners.”

Marta grappled with this beast of gender expectation throughout her early life—the name “Marta,” a cognate of the biblical Martha (Luke 10:38–42; John 11–12), suggests a woman concerned with household affairs. Dona Tereza described her own position in the early days: “I insisted that [Marta] not dream anymore about being a soccer player, because that was never going to happen. In addition to this, she would probably get seriously injured.”

To which Marta would reply: “If I die of injuries from playing soccer, I want you to place a soccer ball inside my coffin, so that I will die satisfied.”

Her mother has in the main provided strength for Marta’s countercultural ambition, single-handedly supporting the family in what Graciano calls the “invisible town” of Dois Riachos. Marta’s father left the family 14 months after she was born inside a brick, tin-roofed lean-to at 284 Júlio Firmino, decorated in a 2004 photograph with voting instructions for upcoming elections.

The village name, meaning “Two Little Rivers,” seems like an ironic jibe. Children play football in the scrubland streambeds—more like aspiring rivulets—in Brazil’s Nordeste. The town of 13,000 does not appear on maps.

The process 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 conceived of the biography soon after moving to São Paulo. He visited Marta and Marta’s family in Dois Riachos in Dec 04, when Marta was 18; many of the book’s pictures come from this period.

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