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.

He has sought a publisher for the book in Brazil and has encountered resistance to women’s football as subject matter as well as a publishing environment shaken by earlier controversies over biographies of Garrincha and singer Roberto Carlos (see Pedro Venceslau, “Confissões de um réu primário,” Revista Imprensa, Aug 07). Lawyers debated whether these book projects were “authorized” by the principals or agents. Heirs to Garrincha, seeking $1 million in compensation, initiated an 11-year legal battle following publication in 1995 of Garrincha’s biography, Estrela solitária: Um brasileiro chamado Garrincha (Solitary Star: A Brazilian Called Garrincha) by Ruy Castro.

As to whether Graciano’s book would pass muster with Marta and her agent, Fabiano Farah, Graciano writes in an e-mail that he has not heard from them since the trial run of 250 copies. But in a frontispiece Marta stares from the page, squinting against a bright sun, and she dedicates the text to “my mother and to all the people who still believe in their dreams. Much strength of willpower and persistence.” This would appear to be a strong endorsement.

Marta’s strength as cultural referent is demonstrated by an editorial cartoon that appeared in Brazil during the 2008 Olympic Games. Introducing herself to Ronaldinho—target of much criticism for the men’s team’s bronze-medal performance—Ronaldinho replies, shamefully, “Morto [Dead]. Nice to meet you.” (© 2008 Quinho)

Clearly, the book was completed with full cooperation of Marta and her family; much of the photography comes from the family archive. Even if one does not read Portuguese, scanning the pictures gives an idea of Marta’s story and battling spirit.

As a small girl Marta played team handball before joining a boys’ football team, Everton. Football teams for girls were not an option. But it would be incorrect to think that Marta had no backers or no one encouraging her. Graciano has interviewed and taken pictures of trainers and Marta’s teammates on youth teams as well as an adult amateur side, CSA, in Dois Riachos; many recognized her special abilities. Within the family her eldest brother, José, opposed her playing with CSA, often tracking her down at training on his bicycle. “People were telling me: ‘Your sister is playing football with men.’ I took Marta in the house, fought with her, hit her with force some times. But she ran away and would go back to the pitch.”

Its association with Marta is now CSA’s biggest claim to fame. The training with grown men on patchy fields and hardscrabble playing surfaces would precede another significant risk: a three-day bus journey, at 14, to Rio de Janeiro to try out for the women’s team at Vasco Da Gama. The venture proved disorienting for everyone. As Graciano writes, Dona Tereza and her two sons had no reference points for guiding a daughter who wished to be a professional footballer. (Marta’s second brother is Valdir; she also has a sister, Angela.) The only recognizable name in Brazilian women’s football at the beginning of the 21st century was Milene Domingues, a keepy-uppy champion whose face was splashed over celebrity glossies after her marriage to Ronaldo.

Marta beginning in 2000 would play for Vasco as well as Santa Cruz of Belo Horizonte as, in parallel, she began her international career. In 2004, she joined Umeå IK of Sweden, her current club side. In a wider world, Marta’s abilities and passions have gained much greater currency than they ever could have in Brazil. Curiously, though, the signature event in her own mind—after a list of achievements that, at 22, already includes a World Cup silver medal, two Olympic silver medals and two-time selection as FIFA Player of the Year—is Brazil’s triumph at the Pan American Games that it hosted in summer 07.

Not only have we changed ourselves, we have also transformed the way Brazilians see women’s football,” Marta writes on her website about the impact of winning the championship medal—Brazil’s second straight Pan Am gold—at the Maracanã.

Impressions of her own feet have been taken for the Maracanã’s walk of fame. After the Pan Am Games, domestic football authorities launched the Copa do Brasil de Futebol Feminino. Mato Grosso do Sul in Dec 07 won the first competition in penalties over Botucatu of São Paulo. The Brazilian women’s game now has a dedicated blog.

Graciano feels there is a “strong possibility” that Marta will play in the United States with the new Women’s Professional Soccer league. Her national-team coach, Jorge Barcellos, has been appointed coach in St. Louis. Previously, Marta had been linked to FC Indiana (see 18 Jul 08) and to LA Galaxy of Major League Soccer, although the source of the latter rumors, in fall 07, is unclear. A columnist at the Toronto Star made a pitch for her joining that city’s struggling expansion team. Marta’s contract with Umeå runs through the 2008 season.

As to Marta’s long-term impact on women’s sport in the world’s fifth-largest country, Graciano acknowledges the existence already of “other Martas” who draw inspiration from “the queen”—the moniker that seemed suitable even four years ago on Graciano’s pilgrimage to Marta’s home in the Sertão.

At the end of the book, Graciano quotes from Neruda’s “La reina”:

And when you appear
all the rivers sound
in my body, bells
shake the sky
and a hymn fills the world.


Swedish newspaper Expressen reports on 6 Jan 09 that Marta will leave Umeå for a three-year deal at Los Angeles Sol (Av Mats Bråstedt, “ ‘Marta klar för Los Angeles’ ”). Translating the Swedish, Damallsvenskan Newsblog says the contract is worth roughly $500,000 per year (7 Jan 09). Farah rebuffed Umeå’s attempt to re-sign Mata—who has been having a holiday in Brazil before the FIFA World Player Gala on Jan 12—as well as an approach from Damallsvenskan side Malmö, according to the blog’s trolling of other news sources.

Translating an article in Västerbottenskuriren, the blog quotes Farah’s statements “that Umeå hasn’t fulfilled their obligations to Marta. The club owes Marta for unpaid bonuses, he says, and there can be no negotiations until this is settled.” Umeå general manager Britta Åkerlund said she was unaware of the dispute.

Los Angeles of Women’s Professional Soccer, scheduled to play the Washington Freedom Mar 29 in the league’s inaugural game, selected Marta in an international draft on 24 Sept 08. She was the third pick overall. WPS teams also claimed rights to Brazilians Formiga and Erika (Bay Area), Daniela and Renata Costa (St. Louis), Cristiane (Chicago), Fabiana and Maycon (Boston), Rosana and Ester (Sky Blue FC).

“The draft does not reflect any intent or commitment on the player’s behalf to sign with this team or that any offer has been made to the player,” the WPS website said at the time. “Rather, it signifies the beginning of the process by which each team will move forward according to the FIFA Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players.”

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 (5)

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  1. Can we purchase this book in English? Marta needs to play professionally in the USA! She will awaken another 100,000 girls to play soccer.

    We need connections to bring Brazilian girls’ teams to the USA and USA teams to Brazil.

    I am the coach of a team called the Chicas United U-10. We want to dance with Marta’s little sisters of soccer.

  2. At present, the book has only limited availability in Brazil. But such expressions of interest in seeing an English version will only help in making that happen.

    I agree that women’s soccer would be an excellent means of exchange between the two countries and would like to see the US and Brazil women’s national teams, of all age groups, have an annual series of home-and-home exhibitions.

  3. Trish says:

    A version in English would be wonderful. Marta has many young fans here in the US thanks to the Olympics and the World Cup being televised. She needs all the support we can offer. Brazil is where we were in the ’70s—I am a product of the grassroots efforts of promoting women’s soccer here in the US.

    I’m a bit over 40 now and a group of us still get together twice a year to play in league and tournament play. To think of where we started, having to fight for elbow room with the boys. [In Brazil] they have an ever harder battle I think overcoming stereotypes—and what a women’s “role” in their culture should be.

    Regardless, I’m certain there are thousands of little girls down there with dreams to be just like “Marta”—let’s continue to show our support.

  4. [...] in promoting his biography of sensational 22-year-old Marta Vieira da Silva (see earlier articles, Sept 15 and 12 Sept [...]

  5. [...] Umeå,” writes Marta biographer Diego Graciano (see 15 Sept 08), the summers are replete with light. But in winters, the rigors are stark, nothing but snow and [...]

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